Chicago Theater Review: A RED LINE RUNS THROUGH IT (The Second City e.t.c.’s 40th Revue at Piper’s Alley)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 30, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Alluding to the elevated Chicago subway that courses through the North Side, A Red Line Runs Through It proves a theme as much as wordplay in this 40th revue from The Second City e.t.c. Our evening of comedy sketches begins and ends with passengers in a mystifyingly stopped “el” car, stalled in stationary hell and donning Guy Fawkes’ masks to demonstrate their despair. This “train of fools” rides rocky rails over the next 100 minutes.

The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.

Put through panic-stricken paces by director Matt Hovde, the six e.t.c. zanies create the requisite comic commentary on contemporary absurdities. Present but n0t accounted for are the usual suspects and, a tad more regrettably, the standard hipness factor and brand humor to make a trendy audience feel included more than attacked. Underlying this hit-and-run, call-and-response buffoonery is a controlling premise: Anger, more than the Red Line, runs through Chicago circa 2016. If conflict is crucial to drama, even more so comedy focuses on friction.

006 - The Second City - etc 40th Revue

So we get sporadically hilarious bits about big city life and its multitudinous frustrations: crazy drivers (in an inspired improvisation); bitchy brunches eviscerating ex-lovers; bottom-feeding 11 p.m. newscasts; Achilles-heel squabbling between disgusted partners; DVD exercise videos that provoke nervous breakdowns more than physical therapy; local gossip as toxic as troll talk in the social media; and a first-time mother obsessed with the baby’s scatological breakdowns. (Lisa Beasley keeps a devastating deadpan through this inventory of escalating indignities.) The unstoppable lesson of all these micro-aggressions? “Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.” It’s no accident that all this fear-mongering ends with a laundry list of modern phobias. When everything lies “outside your comfort zone,” free will means pick your poison.

The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.

The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.

Pumped up by a constant, often irritating, musical backdrop, this proves one of the loudest and most frenetic shows to scorch the second-floor stage. Everything is grist for the comedy mill. Some is even political: We hear a soberly-intoned list of preposterous campaign PACS pursuing crack-brained agendas. A fairly ferocious first-act finale skewers Mayor Rahm Emmanuel for catering to the 1% and barely winning reelection by suppressing evidence of police executions of unarmed black teenagers. (No, it’s not that funny when the joke’s on us.) Set to a rollicking rap rhythm, an elaborate skit slams the presidential candidates and their ominous Supreme Court choices.

The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.

Character-based tomfoolery balances the agit-prop sketches. Aasia Lashay Bullick and Beasley deliver a demonstration of “black girls’ magic,” in effect a litany of everyday survival tactics, with a popping balloon suggesting a dream deferred. As the designated gay trickster, Peter Kim throws himself into reverse-stereotype mimicry as, celebrating his 30th birthday, he challenges an elaborately embarrassed straight friend (Scott Morehead) to prove his friendship by donning drag. Morehead later carries a load of neurotic overkill as, playing a game of 90s’ trivia, every question triggers a howling confessional about his tortured childhood. Katie Klein has a similar tour de folie: Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, she bellows out the ugly details of the architect’s fornications and the murder spree that rampaged through the estate.

002 - The Second City - e.t.c. 40th Revue The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.

As It turns out, the quieter scenes — a wife’s miseries cresting on their anniversary; a shy date marveling over her guy’s 400-foot apartment (rent is a dollar a foot), futon and Netflix connections — count more than the chronic screaming. With a bit more inspiration/originality and a tad fewer familiar foibles, this multi-targeted mockery wouldn’t be so eager (or desperate) to please. Who knows? Some uncoerced laughter might run through it too.

The Second City Etc. A Red Line Runs Through It.

photos © Todd Rosenberg

A Red Line Runs Through It
The Second City e.t.c.’s 40th Revue
Piper’s Alley, 230 W North Ave
Thurs at 8; Fri & Sat at 8 and 11; Sun at 7
ends in December, 2016
for tickets, call 312-337-3992 or visit Second City

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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