Beware, O Second City, of the perils of the plush-and-shiny new room with the new high-tech toys just begging to be used! Beware further of the dangerous assumption that just because we all now spend our entire lives staring at tiny video screens, especially when we're supposed to be working, that means we want to stare at menus, icons and YouTube-style video shorts when we go and see a show. A live comedy show. In a comedy theater. With comedy actors.
"Sex, Love & The Second City: A Romantic Dot Comedy" is the first of several openings over the next few days as Second City unveils its extensive weekly schedule of programming for UP, its new 285-seat comedy venue within the Piper's Alley complex. (UP, a workable room designed with many Second City spatial traditions, has been carved from the former "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding" space and, please note the disclosure: The Second City is a partner in the Tribune's "Chicago Live!" stage and radio show, now staged Thursday evenings in this very venue).
Directed by Jimmy Carlson (who also is in the cast), "Sex, Love and The Second City" is, in all frankness, not much good. It would be adequate, at best, if one encountered it in a resort or a small suburban market where Second City is a novelty. But this show is being staged just across the hall from, not one, but two of the best sketch-comedy revues you'll find anywhere in the nation, if not the world.
Given that proximity and the brand in the title, an audience's reasonable expectations will be, and should be, for a show that offers cutting-edge entertainment, aesthetic insights and a lot of laughs. And, I could slice and dice it any way you like, but the general credo for the nearly 20 years I've been covering Second City is that if ain't really funny, or dramatic enough to shock you all the way to your boots, it's out. I've seen more revues here than I can count. I don't recall laughing less.
The first crippling problem here is that a good chunk of the show is on video. The basic conceit here — The piece, a combination of archival and some new material, is a hybrid of a comedy play (think "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") and a traditional Second City revue — is that we're following four characters through the travails of dating using the services of "iLove."
In between each sketch, we get a little patronizing video in the style of a commercial by Neil Clark Warren, the irritatingly sincere founder of eHarmony. Frequently, the actors interact with this digital spokesperson, which almost never works. Worse, each time the actors take us to a location — a restaurant, say, or an "L" platform — we get a focus-pulling video image of that very locale. In triplicate. And UP is a much wider room than it is deep, and these are not ordinary screens. Oh no, these are brand-new, pulsing monitors of a definition that sends the image in your direction with such glaring force, I swear it was swirling around inside my cool beverage. I won't even get into the little icons that get pressed, on video, before each sketch, which further kills what little tension has been achieved. Because you start wondering how many icons could possibly be left.
The second crippling problem is that the thing is so slow and predictable — pauses abound — you find yourself consistently ahead of the show. I found myself wondering when that had ever been the case before with me at this particular institution. I could not think of another time.
The third crippling problem is that the material just isn't very strong. A lot of sketches start out with promise but dribble uneasily to a close. And they're too frequently repetitive. At one point, we get a sketch wherein a young woman, played by Amanda Blake Davis, the only member of this cast who seems at ease, reads a bodice-ripping novel and finds herself suddenly accompanied by a knight in a blond wig. It's not the freshest gag in the world, and you'd never see it on the mainstage, but we go with it. But just a few minutes later, those darn monitors show us the inside of Medieval Times, and you can guess the antics. See the problem? It's much the same joke.
In fairness, some of the performance problems come from the need to get used to the room: Carisa Barreca, for example, tends to be either too big or too small, when she needs the sweet spot between. And I did crack a smile at a scene involving the honest performer Ed Kross, who finds himself on a date with the woman behind OnStar, the voice in his car (she tries to influence his order at Wendy's). And there is one stellar scene between Blake Davis and Carlson, wherein she finds herself dating a guy who starts out as an aggressor and ends up just trying to make eye contact. In that scene, Carlson is vulnerable, amusing and generally excellent. But it's not enough to sustain a show that would benefit greatly from some music. Live music.
Hybrids like this are tricky: I was enormously bothered by the video locations because it seemed like such a violation of that cardinal Second City rule that the actors can take you anywhere with a line and a chair. That said, there's no reason why Second City can't experiment with different rules for a different kind of entertainment. But here's the rub. This is Second City, the flagship of funny in the city that invented this kind of funny, and there can be no second-tier anything. Not here.
When: Through May 23
Where: UP Comedy Club at Second City, 230 W. North Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $25-$35 at 312-662-4562 and upcomedyclub.com