The Second City: Spinning smart laughs

Who’s On Second?

The legendary improv troupe Second City smartly provokes laughter at City Performance Hall in the Off-Broadway on Flora Series.

published Saturday, November 15, 2014

“The core of most Second City scenes is a character looking for human connection,” announced the maniacally perky Jo Feldman in a segue paying tribute to the Chicago comedy institution in The Second City – 55th Anniversary Tour. Such as a bubba brother, played by palooka-in-residence Chucho Pérez, who rises to his higher humanity by reaching out to his gay brother’s prom date, enacted by the Adam Schreck who rocked a Neil Patrick Harris vibe.

The two 45-minute sets of sketch comedy, parody songs and on-the-spot improvisation audience games are pulled off with just six performers, four chairs and a musician (in this case the superb Nick Gage). It’s happening through Saturday at Dallas City Performance Hall as part the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off Broadway on Flora series. A few tickets remain for the Saturday matinee, but it’s not a child-safe show.

The Second City showed their merit Thursday night in not how often they made us laugh, but how many times they provoked an “Oh, oh!” Usually in response to a punchline that was very funny while sliding in a deadly social commentary jab. Even ablackout bits could land a damning political punch. But the pace was so quick there was no time to be offended. Each comedic touché is balanced with some silly skit like cell phones at funerals or fantasies night owls wish to wage on morning people.

Making fun of religious myopia and sports fanaticism, staples of Second City, come together in a skit musing why God hates the Kansas City Chiefs. In another sketch, imaginary things revolt for recognition; one of them was freedom of speech. Exemplifying the extra depth the troupe is noted for, Captain Apathy has superpowers but no willingness to use them, stimulating laughs at the ludicrousness, while the real point was people’s slow learning curve at being human.

The troupe’s cynicism of patriotic jabber used to justify military actions displays in a long-time sketch in which to update they simply have to punch in the latest war. A hunched over old woman, played by Rachel LaForce (a brassy southern gal prone to subversive mischief), stamps about in a hissy fit demanding to be sent to war rather than her grandson. Her reasons are funny, truthful, and at times heartbreaking. “I am the logical choice,” she trumpets at the end, only to learn that these are not logical wars.

While the stated theme of The Second City – 55th Anniversary Tour was the troupe’s history, the threading comedic motif is the wittily sardonic Nick Rees as James Burke, the blustery, verbose host of the old PBS show Connections. Evidently, many Important Things can be traced to the origin of “yo mama” jokes. Each time Rees shambled his sizeable frame, hunched over in an intellectual reverie, onto the stage, audience attention picked up.

Second City excels in improv, requesting suggestions of places, activities or situations to be shouted from the audience to create a skit on the spot. In one improv, the troupe pretended to be first-grade children in art class with an exasperated LaForce playing the teacher. Told to draw the audience suggestion of “Starbucks” and tell a story about their art, the tiny, incisive and slightly insane Lisa Barber came up with a totally left-field take. Perez offered up a star with antlers. So did, evidently, the remaining performers, setting off a mad scramble among them to re-draw into a unique take. Feldman presented a Star of David with antlers. Rees disintegrated along with his marker, which cracked the whole team up. Schreck, who struggled to keep from laughing, launched into a long, demented discourse on Starbucks, who is the second in command to Ahab in Moby Dick, digging himself deep into a hole and then back out. Along the way he had to explain why he as a six-year-old was a fan of early American fiction, which prompted Moby Dick jokes to spin forth the rest of the show.

The Second City sets the standard for sketch comedy that other improv-based groups strive to attain. Sure there is the high craft of the skits, the sharp improvisation skills, the top tier performers, the professional support from theatrical directors and stage managers, and the omnipresent yet never overtly noticeable musical support. But most vitally, it’s how the material conveys core tenets of Second City humanist philosophy that affirms our higher selves while poking deep fun at our endless rationalizations and self-delusions.


Photo: Kristen Miccoli
The Second City 55th Anniversary Tour