by Samantha Nelson on March 4, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


The Incomplete Guide to Everything features scenes culled from more than 50 years of The Second City performances, right up to sketches that are part of the soon-to-end main stage revue Let Them Eat Chaos, which means loyal fans are likely to recognize some scenes. Director Ryan Bernier devotes much of the evening to jumping backwards and forwards through time, striving to show that everything throughout history builds on and is connected to everything else. Bernier never really manages to give a feeling of greater purpose to the selected sketches, but fortunately the lineup is well chosen, and the show is so funny that it doesn’t matter.

There are a few duds, like an overly melancholy bit about the importance of putting down your smartphone, and a sketch about gay men stealing straight women because they can’t get married that, while funny, already feels dated. A scene set in a presidential museum goes for too-obvious jokes about George W. Bush being dumb and Barack Obama being black, but is redeemed by the ridiculousness of lines by FDR.

Others are knockouts even if you’ve seen them done before, such as “Rubenesque,” where the excellent female lineup of Sayjal Joshi, Beth Melewski and Niccole Thurman sing about unrepentantly loving food in the style of a ’90s music video. These stellar actresses get plenty of time to shine on their own too: Joshi is wonderful both as an exasperated math teacher and a woman trying to pick up a serial killer in her laundry room; Melewski shows delightful glee as a little girl testing her parents’ patience by cursing; and Thurmann has exasperation down pat, whether she’s a petulant teen or a woman being brushed off by her therapist.

Second City Touring Company alumni Tim Stoltenberg is the brightest star here. He’s consistently hilarious, a master of combining delivery with physical comedy, especially in one sketch where he makes comments in class and mugs to impress the student behind him. He can even elicit big laughs without saying a word, dressed up as Charlie Chaplin for a silent romance with an audience member or hopping in as a pubic hair-trimming crab during an improv game.

This cast is particularly adept at improvising and the show offers plenty of it. A section that depicts an American family in three different time periods is particularly fitting given the decade-spanning nature of the show. Even if the audience member that suggested 1993, the year of his birth, didn’t get the jokes in the resulting sketch, they were amazing. The format tests not just the actor’s comedy reflexes but knowledge of history, and it turns out admitting you don’t know when something occurred is way funnier than faking it and hoping the audience doesn’t notice.

Shad Kunkle uses a fast-paced monologue to try to link everything together, first at the end of an improv game and then at the conclusion of the show. Both fall flat. It turns out the only thing that really connects all these bits is that they come from The Second City, which has an amazing history of work to draw on.

The Second City’s Incomplete Guide to Everything
UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave
3rd Floor of Piper’s Alley
ends on February 28, 2015
for tickets, call 312.662.4562 or visit UP Comedy Club

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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