Second City (Main Stage)


Algorithm Nation, or The Static Quo

  At the Second City Mainstage

By Dan Zeff

Chicago—It’s revue number 107 and counting at the Second City Mainstage. The good news is that the six-member ensemble has a strong skill set for this kind of theater—quick witted, versatile, enthusiastic, and risk taking. Then less than good news is that the material too often leans toward vulgarity, obvious satirical targets, and an insufficient number of home run skits.

The revue calls itself “Algorithm Nation, or The Static Quo,” algorithm, according to one definition being “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” The term is much bandied about in high tech land but its application as a guiding light in a Second City revue eluded my low-tech mind. But then again, I am not a millennial and audiences of the algorithm-understanding generation may find it a deft label for what the revue is attempting to accomplish.

What is readily obvious with the first sketch is that this revue will speak its mind, loudly and too often with an overuse of profanity, addressing social problems like racial prejudice and our current president. In one sketch, a young black couple is spending an evening with a young white couple, with the black pair scoring continual points off the white couple’s ham-fisted liberalism as they run the changes on a bunch of black stereotypes. The sketch has its chuckles but it was a knee jerk copy of the kind of insightful in your face comedy Second City would have dealt out 20 or 30 years ago.

In the same cliché-stricken spirit, there is an ensemble song and dance bit about a group of White House interns gleefully railing against the blue state element in America while wallowing in their own securely held prejudices. The song lyrics were apparently pointed toward and cheerfully accepted by the liberal audience that typically attends a Second City show. The sketch, even with its clever moments, reinforced rather than illuminated. The material was Fox News for liberals.

My mind drifted back to the early golden years of Second City, when Barbara Harris and John Belushi and that lot ruled. They made their stiletto-sharp points with language and actions that would be rated PG in today’s sensibilities, but they still drew blood. Used judiciously, salty language can humorously underline a satirical point, but in the deluge of f-bombs and their brethren in “Algorithm, “the result was coarseness instead of comic insight. And the explicitness of some of the sexual material fairly dared the audience not to laugh. One sketch featuring the three males was just plain embarrassing in its sexual grossness.

Still, some of the show was fun, with the improvisations, always a game of chance, coming off especially well on opening night. The cast pulled a young man out of the crowd and kept him on stage for several segments, which could have blown up in their face but turned out to be very funny, partly thanks to the cooperation of the audience member but mostly because of the comic instincts of the players, led by Nate Varrone, a performer marked for future stardom.

  Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Tyler Davis, one of the two African Americans on stage (along with Kimberly Michelle Vaughn), performed a song to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment about the shooting death of a young black man and its aftermath. The song and Davis’s rendition were thoughtful and moving, all the more emotionally involving for its outward absence of outrage. At its completion the audience realized that this wasn’t a comic number and sat silent and a little stunned. Davis has a depth to his talents that the revue should tap more fully.

The remainder of the cast consists of Ryan Asher, Jeffrey Murdoch, and Emma Pope. Murdoch looked and sounded a little like the hallowed Avery Schreiber. He joined Varrone as a team of radio talk show hosts celebrating their 30th anniversary on the air. They listened to a retrospective selection of their earlier programs with slack-jawed confusion at all the anti-black and anti-Semitic and anti-gay material that passed for legitimate humor back in the day before the term “politically correct” was heard in the land. Another sketch took a perversely benign attitude toward sexual harassment. At these moments, the show approached the high notes we expect from a Second City presentation.

The three young ladies brought physical vitality to everything they performed, even when the material could have been more incisive and less vulgar. The six-member cast gets collective writing credit for the material. If they dialed down the loudness and language the results would have been happier, though the audience seemed enough. But I’ve never sat in a Second City audience that wasn’t enthusiastic and eager to demonstrate how hip and worldly they were.

Veteran director Matt Hovde kept the pace fast and fluent. The physical production led by Bob Knuth (set design) and Kyle Anderson (lighting) was fine. Musical director Vinnie Pillarella effectively blended orchestral backdrops with the single piano accompaniment that reached back to the Ruby Streak era. Presumably the six performers were responsible for their all- black costumes.

Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

If this ensemble can upgrade its material without losing its edge and point of view, the revue will be in much better shape. The quick minds and performing abilities certainly are in place.

“Algorithm Nation or The Static Quo” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets begin at $31. Call 312 337 3992, or visit www.secondcity.com.

The show gets a rating of .

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