Chicago Theater Review: WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE? (Second City in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on April 19, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

SECOND CITY KNOWS EXACTLY WHO THEY ARE

Second City calls its 100th mainstage revue Who Do We Think We Are? The question is rhetorical. For more than half a century, Second City has been the citadel of improvisational theater in the United States, with an astonishing alumni list that runs from John Belushi and Alan Arkin to Tina Fey and Bill Murray. The six members of the current mainstage ensemble could be forgiven for feeling they carry the weight of history on their performing shoulders as they present the company’s centennial revue. To their credit, the cast blasts full speed ahead with the kind of edgy comedy that put Second City in the theatrical map. The company lobs its satirical grenades at national and Chicago politics, race, gender, and domestic and personal conflicts—the same type of raw material that fueled the first 99 shows. Not everything works equally efficiently: the first act in particular could use some beefing up. But the second act hits its stride, especially in the sharp banter among all six performers in the ensemble bits.

The ensemble consists of the traditional three males and three females. The cast are all veterans of the company, either on the mainstage or as part of the developmental Second City Touring Company. They are young, animated (this is one of the most physically energetic revues I’ve seen), and versatile. The troupe has good rapport, though there are no emerging superstars of the Dan Ackroyd-John Candy-Gilda Radner-George Wendt ilk, at least not yet.

The ladies tend to dominate, partly because they have the best material or at least do the most with it. Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, and Mary Sohn will warm the hearts of feminists with their in-your-face portraits of young women who are the match of any guy they meet. The best repartee of the night comes from a sketch with all three women, plus Edgar Blackmon in drag from the men’s side, gather at a school reunion to dish with disgust and gusto about men and relationships.

Blackmon and his male cohorts Tom Baltz and Steve Waltien get in some shots, though a potential funny running bit about Barak Obama (Blackmon) and Mitt Romney (Waltien) kept ending before it really got going. Blackmon has Obama’s super cool mannerisms and voice down pat and he should be allowed more stage time in this election season, possibly in an improv question-and-answer session with the audience. Romney gets only token stage time, but Waltien still suggests that there are comic possibilities for his Mitt, given more exposure time.

The revue is generous with the number of improvisation sketches. There is a funny riff on an audience suggestion of Mike Ditka as a topic. The most startling improv moment on opening night came from audience response to the proposition that spectators could sponsor an improvisation topic for hard cash. Someone actually put up $80 to underwrite an improv sketch about lesbians. Overall the company collected maybe $200 from the crowd for the privilege of nominating a subject, all the money going to Planned Parenthood (“whether you like it or not”). Katie Rich was the quick-witted and funny hostess for the sale, one of the most bizarre concepts I’ve ever seen in a Second City improvisation. But it worked, at least for one night.

The revue’s production values consist of high decibel taped rock and rap music, live keyboard accompaniment from Julie B. Nichols (who occasionally competed too loudly with the dialogue on stage), and Matt Gawryk’s dramatic, sometimes startling lighting. The set by Sarah Ross is basically two doors at the rear of the stage on either side of an opening for entrances and exits. The dominant props are those matched wooden chairs that have been part of the Second City ambience since 1959. Director Matt Hovde keeps the show moving at an accelerated velocity, obviously encouraging the athletic, almost gymnastic physical pace of the show.

Who Do We Think We Are? could stand a couple of blockbuster sketches to pep up the first act but after the intermission the revue elevates itself with funnier, more incisive material seasoned with a garnish of raunchiness. At its best, the production is a quality reminder of what has made Second City such a civic treasure for so many decades.

ensemble photo by Michael Brosilow; show photo by Clayton Hauck

Who Do We Think We Are?
Second City in Chicago
ends on March 31, 2013
for tickets, call 312 337 3992 or visit Second City

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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