Ross Bryant, the decidedly thrilling newcomer to the mainstage cast at The Second City, has a haircut that looks like someone took a big mixing bowl, plopped it on top of his head at a slight angle, and then ran a razer around its periphery. Add a pair of thick glasses, a beanpole frame, a whip-fast mind and a gurgling set of interlocking voices and you have an uber-nerd of prodigious comic distinction.
Although the ever-interlocutory Katie Rich, a performer with formidable skills when it comes to teasing workable suggestions from an audience (one of her main tricks is to slow everything down and let the inept respondent stew until she coughs up something better) is the moral anchor of the notably absurdist 101st revue at The Second City, "Let Them Eat Chaos," it's Bryant who provides most of the promised titular commotion in a wacky, wonkish, occasionally meandering show that comes with far more improvisation, especially in the earlier sections, than usual.
The Second City is using projections (by Mike Tutaj) for the first time in a mainstage revue, allowing the traditional array of chairs and blank space to be enveloped by images of specific moods of locales, projected on much bigger walls. There are pitfalls of overuse here, of course, but Tutaj's work is, as always, sufficiently layered and theatrical that it adds rather than detracts from the traditional experience. And, perhaps not coincidentally, you certainly couldn't accuse Matt Hovde's show of pandering to modern techno tastes in any cheapening way. In its intellectual heart and geopolitical range, this particular revue is very close to the troupe's initial Hyde Park gestalt. To a fault, if anything. There is mucho time here for Roosevelt, sirens, the Germanic influence and Helen of Troy — and a lively debate on whether Helen's face launched or sunk those thousand ships (the answer is not as simple as you might imagine).
"Let Them Eat Chaos," which was directed by Hovde with musical direction by Julie B. Nichols, starts out slowly and initially seems in search of an accessible point of view (the second act has the opposite issue, getting a tad submerged in a long and weird voyage on a cruise ship that's not so easy to unpack). For sure, there is less overtly topical humor in the revue than some might expect: no Rahm, no Roger, no Wrigley. For my money, a bit more of a sense of fighting the chaos of the here and now would be helpful (the piece is a tad high-minded in its longer sections). That said, this level of whimsy is very funny. And school closings make it in, obliquely but witheringly, during a furiously angry series of raps wherein condo owners unload on the trivial stuff that occupies condo boards, even as bodies lie in the Chicago streets. "Why do I have to ask," Bryant rants, all puffed up with rage, "to receive my parking pass?" One man's chaos ...
This cast is excellent: at times, you have the sense of performers like Edgar Blackmon and, especially, Steve Waltien, needing yet more opportunities to unleash their formidable comedic chops (Blackmon gets looser and funnier with every show). The pair of them are like springs, waiting to uncoil. They each need one more juicy bit; Waltien, who is very funny at the improvised top, needs some kind of melt-down payoff.
Tawny Newsome and Holly Laurent are both legit singers, making the musical offerings in this piece especially strong. Most notably, there is an uncompromising, folk music take-down of the argument that more guns make us all safer. "More guns will stop the violence / More kissing will stop mono," goes the ditty, which also advocates "tying more ladies to the railroad tracks."
And, thankfully, there is room amidst all the global metaphysics for a traditional Second City scene that hones in on bit of trauma we all can understand: the difficulty of naming your child in the hospital. At one point, the stressed couple imagine the result if they took someone's suggestion to name the kid after the place of conception. "Hello, Jewel Parking Lot," someone says to Newsome, who smiles like a woman with low tolerance for that kind of permanent chaos, as afflicted at birth.
When: Open run
Where: The Second City, 1616 N. Wells St.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $23-$28 at 312-337-3992 or secondcity.com