Sunday, July 8, 2012

A MORE HUMAN REVUE THAN USUAL - 'We Are All In This Room Together' at Second City e.t.c.

(Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

Sketch comedy today is facing a unique problem. While the theatre certainly endures its struggles, from lagging ticket sales to waning youth engagement, sketch comedy has a  sinister enemy all its own: the internet. If audiences want short, silly escapes, they typically first turn to YouTube; not the local comedy club or improv troupe. I can't imagine that ticket sales at Chicago's Second City are suffering all that much as a result of the web. Hell, they've been coexisting symbiotically with "Saturday Night Live" for decades and those terribly popular "Sassy Gay Friend" videos were born out of Second City. But nonetheless it is the focus - sort of - of the 36th Second City e.t.c. revue, "We Are All In This Room Together." 

Although that theme isn't directly addressed beyond the company introduction, "We Are All In This Room Together" comically explores our media and web entrenched culture with Second City's signature intertwined vignettes. The troupe's methodology for asserting their in-person live-liness seems to be lampooning our modern tendency to bury our faces in touch screens and social media. While this is an undoubtedly funny conceit, I wasn't sold on its longevity until an interaction that had me in stitches.

A petit, bespectacled Andel Sudik and her endearingly cruel partner, Aidy Bryant portrayed two old ladies at a free outdoor film screening. You know, one of those particular places where  the crazies really come out to play. Sitting in lawn chairs at the edge of the stage, the pair asked the audience questions. The first couple they encountered had to be in their seventies. And when asked how long they'd been together, the woman responded, "We met on J-Date." Besides being absolutely hysterical, this moment was a stark awakening for me. Leading lives inside the web-nexus isn't limited to the young, but is all-enveloping. 

The internet also allows us to skew our identities into whatever we want them to be, and today we're seeing that invasive habit collide head-on with real life. A terrifically funny sketch begins "Christian Mingle really nailed it, huh?" The date continues, but as the guy continuously fumbles, the girl realizes that he isn't actually a Christian; he's only interested in the dates. 

One of the longer sketches deals with the scorchingly topical issue of gay marriage. Taking audience involvement to new heights, the cast targets an assumedly heterosexual male and creates him the partner in a gay marriage. Depicting every event from the announcement to the actual marriage, there is tongue-in-cheek double-sidedness when the wedding planner says "This all happened so fast!" 

This ensemble, while fluid, succeeds individually more so than as a team. I was rather taken by Michael Lehrer, a terrifically funny performer who has an intensity of gaze that he deftly manipulates between likable and creepy. Lehrer sings an endearing song about being short, that while not traditionally humorous, drew me closer to him as a performer. Bryant is also a highlight of the revue, having a tremendous gift for quick quips - particularly as she leads her All Ex-Husband Band. Fellow actors Mike Kosinski, Tawny Newsome, and  Chris Witaske all made me giggle profusely, but they don't inhabit the quirky characters quite as dexterously as the aforementioned three.

Where the ensemble really triumphs - and this is something you do not typically see at Second City - is in a few unusually sobering moments without any jokey payoff. Sketches that briskly deviate into cancer,  single-parenting, and even gay marriage give "We Are All In This Room Together" the more human, communal feel that, I imagine, this talented troupe is aiming to achieve. -Johnny Oleksinski

"We're All In This Room Together" runs at Second City e.t.c, 1608 N. Wells,