NOT TOO FAST TO FEEL
This latest revue from Chicago’s comedy empire won’t be confused with its 102 predecessors. The Second City’s Panic on Cloud 9 isn’t half as frenzied as the title implies. For one thing, there are fewer and longer sketches, and they don’t all end in punch lines or exit laughs. Often the sight gags, like the strange sock hop that ends the show with a HAZMAT fumigator waltzing with a single Chelsea Devantez, linger longer than the hit-and-run humor of past ventures.
Above all, this latest comedy adventure, suavely helmed by Ryan Bernier in his Mainstage debut, isn’t afraid to feel, sometimes a lot, about stuff that earlier editions might have dismissed as corny quirks.
You see that in one of the longest, most leisurely cases of constructed comedy at Second City: John Hartman, master of robotic ridiculousness, softens that side and dumbs down a bit. He accompanies newbie Paul Jurewicz to play two winsome cowboys under lonely stars. Bored with the round-up routine of cattle-herding and too much weather, they suddenly speculate—in hilarious detail—about lives they could have led as a popular society dame, a 63-year-old Chinese father, and a shy architect. We’re talking instant empathy. The scene, almost ritualistic with repetition, reveals these seeming clodhoppers simmering with convulsive imagination over lives they’ll never know. Bernier gives them enough time to be more than gut-bustingly funny. Sure, it’s “fish out of water” humor but it’s embracingly real.
Likewise a tender hospital scene which opens the second act: Emily Walker plays a wife, frustrated that she can’t communicate with her now “vegetative” husband who she tenderly calls “a loaf of bread.” We hear his unspoken thoughts about past quarrels and kinks—but the pathos lies in what they can’t say or share. It’s rare for a Second City sketch to be about what can’t happen. The usual regrets depicted are failures of action or communication, not simple heartbreak.
Other prolonged pieces include a permissive parent-weary teacher conference that grapples with the non-negotiable truth the kid is a born “asshole” for whom there’s no hope; a “bus of fools” where travelers divulge inner monologues about dead-end dreams; a bachelorette party for Russian émigrés that bashes more than Putin; and a surprisingly moving exchange between a guidance counselor (Daniel Strauss) and Hartman’s passive-aggressive deaf bully, a sly survivor who wants to connect any way possible.
In individual turns, Christine Tawfik has a great moment as an Arab airplane passenger who’s too authentic to trigger racial profiling from her seatmate (Jurewicz), and Hartman bears a stupid simper as he plays a chillingly casual Ebola victim calling everyone on a recent flight to tell them why he sneezed so much (too soon for this subject to be a laff riot?).
A complex three-way interchange involves a husband, wife, and her “day-drinking” therapist, and whether their dreams about each other are more authentic than their sessions and encounters. In the one political skit, cowed Secret Service agents speculate on Obama’s legacy: Their rueful ambiguity over “hopes and dreams” no doubt echoes the second thoughts of many former fans in the audience.
The physical comedy seldom outstays its welcome: Take Hartman as a happy porpoise tragically taken for a shark by two paddlers in Hawaii; the epic mix-up as over-eager students confuse a Les Miz rehearsal with a La Maze class; and Batman and Robin depressed by the inability of their sock-o punches and percussive kicks to save Gotham (here Chicago) from real gun violence. Verbal sleights of hand and flight of fancy combine in an escalating sketch about two “Mad Women” whose copywriting brainstorming bursts into elaborate outbursts of T.M.I.
Among the strategic songs by Jacob Shuda is a serenade sung by a female fetus to the dad she’ll see, a doo-wop trial scene that turns stalking into a solid-gold oldie, and a marriage proposal that comes out of nowhere but, happily, doesn’t go there.
Nothing bombs here, a feat in itself. Any comic shock effects pay off rather than just detonate. Happily, Panic is no attack (or retreat), just hot fun on a cold night.
photos by Todd Rosenberg
Panic on Cloud 9
The Second City’s 103rd Revue
The Second City Mainstage Theatre, 1616 N. Wells St
Tues – Thurs at 8; Fri and Sat at 8 & 11; Sun at 7
run ended July, 2015
for tickets, call 312-337-3992 or visit Second City
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago