At the Second City Mainstage

By Dan Zeff

CHICAGOThe new Second City revue is funny,  though I’ve seen funnier. But I don’t recall when I have seen a better acted show or one presented with better pace. This good news comes even though three of the six cast members and the director are all first-timers on the Mainstage.

         The revue, the 103rd in the cabaret theater’s golden history, is called “Panic on Cloud 9” for reasons that eluded me. The show departs a bit from the Second City norm. There is only one brief improvisation skit, a spectator pulled from the audience to sit in a barber chair and exchange unrehearsed chitchat with the barber. There are also no blackouts, those quickie comic bits that separate the longer sketches.

Otherwise, it’s business as usual, with domestic humor mingled with political satire. The satire is not really angry, and targets like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel get the show’s attention without drawing any blood. But some hot button issues do get seriously tweaked, like gun control and our society’s racial divisions.

       The ensemble is a mix of veterans Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, and John Hartman and newcomers Paul Jurewicz, Daniel Strauss, and Christine Tawfik. But they all work together like they have been doing Second City topical comedy for years, the chemistry just right in any combination of performers in a sketch.


                             Photo by Todd Rosenberg

      These sketches are all full length, sometimes self-contained playlets. The stunner of the show opens the second act, a two- hander between Walker and Jurewicz that takes place apparently in a hospital room between a husband and wife where the male character sits, initially depressed almost to the point of being catatonic. There are some good giggles in the dialogue exchange between the two, but overall the spectator witnesses a painful encounter between two people who say they love each other but can no longer connect emotionally. The effect is heartbreaking without descending into the maudlin or the manipulative and the pain of the characters is palpable. It’s the most serious sketch I can recall at Second City and it is performed with a flawless blend of sensitivity and humor.

         But for the most part the revue’s comedy trumps the serious. There is a gem of a sketch with Devantez and Strauss (who reminds me physically and stylistically of Gene Wilder) meeting with a child psychiatrist (Tawfik) seeking advice on how to handle their troublesome son. After hearing all the symptoms from the parents, the doctor issues her considered diagnosis—the boy is an a..hole. The sketch hilariously sends up both the mumbo jumbo of much child psychology and parents too permissive to provide proper guidance for their offspring.

         One of the cleverest bits of the evening features Devantez and Hartman as Robin and Batman, the caped crusader sunk in despair as a very weak superhero. Batman, in his saggy costume and despairing attitude, is a hoot as the sketch takes the audience into issues of real life violence and racial conflict while sustaining its comic underpinnings, not the least being Robin’s ostentatiously buxom  physique.

         The high risk item in the show is a one-man skit portraying Hartman delivering a Bob Newhart-like monologue into a telephone as he contacts various people he’s encountered to inform them that he’s contracted the Ebola virus and maybe the person on the other end of the phone call might want to seek medical counsel. Any revue that can get laughs out of the Ebola plague is both gutsy and very talented.

         The night’s trickiest item portrays Hartman and Jurewicz as a pair of lonesome cowboys camping under the stars and tossing oddball lines back and forth in the most solemn manner (“Did you ever want to be a 63-year old Chinese man?”). The sketch is a couple of minutes too long, yet the way the two men keep the one-joke concept buoyant for as long as they do is impressive. In another terrific two-hander, Walker and Devantez are a pair of advertising types assessing possible product campaigns aimed at women. Each one gradually gets personally and angrily involved to the point of comic hysteria.


                                                                            Photocredit: Todd Rosenberg

         Hartman was the star of the previous Mainstage revue and shines again, but every one of his colleagues contributes on an equally high level. The show fits their estimable comic with material that perfectly fits their performing comfort zones. Not everything works to the max, as one might expect in a show with almost two dozen skits. A scene with the three females impersonating Russian young women at a bridal gathering for one of them didn’t really go anywhere and their accents were difficult to penetrate. And the show’s finale was short and confusing when the success of all that went before it cried for a boffo finish.

         The production values are fine. Design credits belong to Kyle Anderson (lighting), Greg Mulvey (projections), and Bob Knuth (set). They combine to create a sophisticated and varied staging that is a considerable departure from the minimalist productions of earlier revues. Fortunately we still have the plain wooden chairs as links to the company’s more Spartan  visual past. Jacob Shuda is the new musical director as well as composer and sound designer. His musical accompaniment and original music are deft enhancements throughout the evening.

     Minor defects notwithstanding, triumphs dramatically as well as comically. Director Ryan Bernier has orchestrated a show that shapes nearly every sketch to its dramatic and comic strengths. Each performer contributes his or her well-defined stage personality to the mix (Jurewicz looks like the heir to such Second City stars as John Belushi and J. J. Barry as the house burly comic slob). I would have preferred more improv because this cast is verbally nimble, physically arresting, and very intelligent, and it would be a treat to watch them wing it through unscripted material.

“Panic on Cloud 9” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets began at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at    December 4, 2014

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