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What's Behind the Doors?


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Doors Open on the Right

Second City


at Second City, Donny's Skybox Studio

The doors open on the right, left, and center in Doors Open on the Right, the sharp-witted, skillfully performed new revue on Second City's main stage. Aaron Carney's set consists of three door frames, one at either side of the stage and one in the middle. A useful device for the actors' farcically complex traffic patterns, this triptych is also a visual metaphor for satiric sketches addressing our ever more polarized society and the plight of middle-of-the-road citizens.

These are the working stiffs riding the subway, who chant their thoughts to themselves in rhythmic counterpoint: "I'm tired," "I want to sit down but not next to someone," "I go to the gym to avoid my kids." These are the average folks more emotional--and knowledgeable--about an overzealous Cubs fan's failed attempt to catch a baseball than they are about foreign policy and the economy. These are the dithery Democrats at a Moline town meeting who pester a candidate with questions about personal problems--theirs, not hers. These are the consumers enslaved by such high-tech devices as a supermarket self-checkout system that proves reliably unreliable and a voice-activated voting machine that registers every vote as a vote for George W. Bush.

Election-year politics provide a running motif for the show, but Doors Open on the Right isn't generally as overtly political as such Second City productions as the 2001 Holy War, Batman! and the 2002 Thank Heaven It Wasn't 7/11. And whatever you think about the apparent inevitability of a Bush victory this year, the three women and three men onstage aren't inclined to preach or pander to you. If they have a political hero, it's Al Sharpton, hilariously portrayed by Antoine McKay. They admire and identify with him: he's funny, he tells the truth, and he doesn't have a shot in hell of actually changing anyone's vote.

Doors Open on the Right is fundamentally about the difficult task of balancing entertainment and truth telling. The show's most popular skit, judging from the rousing spontaneous applause it received at the sold-out performance I caught, concerns sensational media manipulation of news reporting--specifically sports footage digitally distorted for maximum impact. "How violent do you want it?" the engineer asks the producer. "This is Fox News. Sky's the limit," she replies. As the "video" is repeatedly played and rewound, the actors perfectly execute a backward replay of the action--a brilliant display of physical comedy that also distills the show's underlying theme.

Director Joshua Funk has imposed a somewhat more conventional structure on this show than I've seen in other recent Second City efforts, but he hasn't reverted to the sketch-and-song formula of the past. Strings of vignettes are framed by choral speaking passages or punctuated by running gags--most notably about the hapless Cubs fan, who here fumbles attempts to catch an infant falling from a burning high-rise and to snatch Iraqi weapons of mass destruction from the hands of U.S. military forces.

The evening's linchpin is a fourth-grade pageant celebrating America's occupation of Iraq watched by the children's adoring parents: a husband and wife bickering over who operates the video camera, a lesbian couple, a dad showing support for his son while the boy's mom is home drunk. In preparation for the pageant, the class is visited by a macho marine sergeant who loses his cool completely under the kids' innocent, probing questions.

The show's actor-authors--McKay, Daniel Bakkedahl, Brian Boland, Lisa Brooke, Liz Cackowski, and Jean Villepique--form a crack team who work skillfully off one another. And off the audience, as the women showed when they portrayed elderly ladies in a nursing home asking personal questions of a visitor--a startled front-row viewer. None of the six--most of them newcomers to the main stage--exudes the star power of such former Second Citizens as Barbara Harris, John Belushi, Mike Myers, and Stephnie Weir. But they perform with the delicious mix of crisp timing and spontaneity that's a hallmark of the very best improvisational theater. "I don't mean that you have to change lines every night, but you can't do it quite the same way every time," says Second City cofounder Paul Sills in Jeffrey Sweet's oral history of the company, Something Wonderful Right Away. "The work of creation is renewable, renewable, renewable." Doors Open on the Right proves his point.

Around the corner and four floors up, in Second City's scruffy Skybox Studio, Andy Ross makes a captivating first impression in his solo show Comedeus. An alumnus of Second City's training center, this lithe North Carolina transplant is a skilled dancer and mime as well as a rubber-faced comedian. Wearing a black spandex bodysuit, he skips, leaps, capers, and crawls around the scuffed stage with a monkeylike manic energy.

But about ten minutes into his hour-long piece it becomes apparent that Ross's physical talents aren't matched by his abilities as a writer. Comedeus is a hodgepodge of adolescent philosophizing in which the god of laughter reenacts his story--how he received his divine mission from God to entertain Adam and Eve because they were unable to communicate with each other, how he was thwarted by his nemesis, Trutheus, the god of realism. Ambitiously, Ross plays all the roles, but his portrayals become increasingly confusing--especially since he sometimes breaks character to gulp water from a plastic bottle or to wisecrack about missed light cues.

Comedeus is mainly an excuse for Ross to demonstrate his ability to mime mountain climbing, horse riding, canoeing, and sword fighting. In one especially gutsy bit, he invites an audience member to pull an invisible sword out of his chest. That striking moment illuminates what's wrong with Comedeus: Ross needs other actors, or at least a strong director, to bounce his ideas off and to rein in his self-indulgence. He also needs to curb his eagerness to entertain--and his impulse to overact. Capable of creating stage images of striking beauty as well as comic absurdity, he needs teammates to help him realize his potential.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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