Return to Second City
Sitting in the Starbucks next door to Second City. This Starbucks is open twenty-four hours a day. If I sat in here long enough and I’d probably see everybody from Second City wander through in search of a jolt of caffeine.
I don’t know if any of the high spirits I saw on Second City’s two stages over the last two nights is fueled by coffee, but both shows are so swift that they almost pass in a blur. A hilarious blur.
In the smaller ETC theatre, the show is The Sky’s the Limit (Weather Permitting). I don’t see in this the thematic throughline that often winds its way through the most compelling Second City shows, but a lot of the individual pieces land, particularly one about a painfully shy man having to rely on pre-written comments on note cards to get through a first date.
For a number of years, it’s been a (sometimes unfair) rule-of-thumb that the ETC shows are edgier and more challenging. Apparently the director of a recent ETC show, Billy Bungeroth, made such a hit there that he was given the reins on the mainstage. The result is South Side of Heaven, which I think is a triumph.
In the early days, a typical Second City show was made up of a series of extended scenes with a handful of blackouts and songs tossed in. Technology—particularly the ability knock off a dozen light and sound cues in less time than it takes to read this sentence—offers tools that speed transitions in current shows as fast as a change of mind. There are still well-built scenes with psychological meat, but the dominant mode is a cross between a chopped salad and a Jackson Pollock painting—fragments shooting at you from where you least suspect, elements flying together and exploding in sudden jolting juxtapositions. I won’t spoil the surprises by getting too specific, but elements in what looks to be an attempt to cope with an unexpected technical problem are reprised and given new context later in the evening, particularly in a bit in which an airport security officer demonstrates his ability to glean an unnerving amount of information apparently from just a glance at passengers.
A piece I particularly admired involved four guys—two black, two white—getting together to watch an exhibition game between Chicago’s two baseball teams on a flat screen in the home of one of them. Sports fans often lapse into trash talking, and, in this case, the talk veers into racial imagery, contrasting the South Side ethos with that of the North Side. (The White Sox are based on the South Side in a predominantly black neighborhood and the Cubs in the North, where affluent youngish whites tend to live.) The laughs are sharp, but even more impressive is the sociology of the scene, which manages to tell a great deal about Chicago through the lens of its teams and its fans. The host in this scene is played by Sam Richardson, a large-framed black actor who seems to have uncommon range. Even as I was watching him in a hilarious dance in tiny trunks, I could see him taking on classical roles handily.
But the whole cast is strong, and the show adds up to a disquieting view of contemporary anxiety. The most comforting aspect of attending it is that you’re surrounded by a packed house sharing an appreciation for the absurdity the show shines its many lights on. Second City is fifty-one years old and still I know nobody else doing work in comedy to equal it.