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Friday, January 31, 2014

Second Amendment

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Improvisational comedy is as old as any theatrical style, but was given new life in Chicago in the days when Mike Nichols a student at the University of Chicago and Elaine May was hanging out in the neighborhood. Second City evolved from some early ensembles, and continues to supply our best-known comedians. Here’s what I found when they stopped in Albany back in 1997.


ALMOST 40 YEARS AGO, when the ensemble that would become Second City was performing scenario plays in a bar in Chicago, they were asked to extend the length of their shows to allow more bar business. So they started improvising scenes. Improvisation calls on different acting techniques than scripted shows: an ability to be, Zen-like, “in the moment,” and an instinctive affirmation of anything your scene partners come up with.

Second City’s National Touring Company is a direct descendant of that tradition. Gone are the socially-conscious scenarios, replaced by sketch-comedy scenes, developed through improvisation and refined through performances. And the improvised finale is still part of the show.

Six young actors and a pianist turned the Egg’s bare stage into a restaurant, a hospital surgery, a clothing store, a fast-food restaurant and many more locations. Even though we saw no setting or costumes, we believed in the locations because the relationships among the actors were so compelling.

Sometimes this worked extremely well, as in a restaurant sketch in which a young executive (Pam Klier) explains to her unhappy boyfriend (Jack McBrayer) that her promotion will take her to the other side of the country. In a classic setup, the silent waiter, played to perfection by T.J. Jagodowski, coaches Jack in sign language over Pam’s shoulder, encouraging him to be unprecedentedly aggressive in his unhappiness–and she changes her plans. Characters were deftly drawn, timing was dead on and the payoff was satisfying.

Other times, the sketches relied on a quick gunshot of surprise (“Oh, they’re doctors! Oh no, she’s his mom! Good heavens, he was supposed to be in a wheelchair!”) for a punch line. They’re good punctuation, but too many such skits pall.

In a couple of cases, compelling characters were drawn and put into an interesting conflict, but the sketches then were hurried to a finish. Two drunks in a bar (Klier and rubber-faced Andy Cobb) meet under hostile circumstances, then he discovers that she probably was the Snow White he fell in love with years ago at the Ice Capades. Definite signs of the piece’s improv roots (lots of agreement between the characters) and a wonderful flashback, but a cop-out ending. In another barroom scene (which the company calls “Not Gay”), McBrayer can’t stop complimenting Jagodowski, pushing him to blurt out that he’s straight. Of course, says Jack. So am I. But why can’t guys be affectionate with one another? The relationship took some wonderfully funny twists and turns as T.J. wrestled with fear and embarrassment–then suddenly (I have to say it) the scene petered out.

Despite the material’s range of quality, everyone in the company was extraordinary. Holly Eliz Walker was, at various times, a cowboy-garbed business executive on a mission to “countrify” an office of photocopier salesmen (“This li’l paradigm shift’ll be more fun than a tractor pull!”), a bewildered university professor and, in an improvised Party Quirks sketch, she couldn’t use the letter “e.” Susan Maxman was the mom from hell (well, Long Island) in a shopping mall, a wildly free-associating spy and an uptight college student. Pianist Trey Stone helped keep the sketches moving with well-chosen music, and I would have liked to see more singing from the cast, who clearly were capable of anything.

Their finest display of precision timing came in a reinterpretation of the famous Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. As McBrayer watched in horror, Maxman ran and re-ran, backwards and forwards, speeded up and in slow-motion, a “video” (acted by the other four) in which the action changed each time–and was then perfectly mirrored during rewind.

Second City needs to be fussier about finished product. The drug-addled years of “Saturday Night Live” took its toll on sketch-comedy standards. Let’s raise them, folks. Finish your pieces. And improvise for us more, because that’s where something wonderful still tends to happen, right before our eyes.

The Second City’s National Touring Company
Directed by Klaus Schuler
The Empire Center at the Egg, Oct. 25

Metroland Magazine, 30 October 1997

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