If any one town can claim to have invented improv, it's Chicago. It's been that way since July 5, 1955, when the Compass Players opened their first show at 1152 E. 55th St. and allowed the likes of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Valerie Harper and Alan Alda to turn what had been a collection of performance games into a spontaneous artistic medium in its own right. Things developed nicely from there.
But even though you can't enter a bar in this town without seeing an improviser with a beer, or serving one, there has not been a weekly show to which one could take a tourist or an out-of-towner and say, look, see this and you will better understand what was created here. Sure, there's ComedySportz, but then those University of Chicago old-timers would no more have donned referee costumes and blown whistles than they would have joined the NFL in their sophomore year. There are a variety of eclectic, ongoing attractions at iO, upon which one can take one's chances, but they tend to represent a particular branch of the field, especially its long-form outgrowths. No, "The Second City Improv All-Stars," which succeeds in being both a slick and entertaining show and an accessible yet laudably detailed introduction to the various aspects of the form, definitely fills a niche.
Pleasingly, the cast has a high dweeby quotient, which fits right into that historical genesis. The besuited likes of Cody Dove and Kellen Alexander pay a quiet homage to the Compass days just by the shine of their narrow-breasted suits and the sizes of their foreheads. And Rachel Mason showed some smarts at Monday night's opening when she pulled an improv based on the suggestion "food desert" away from errant talk of sand by singing "I thought White Castle was a vegetable," and clueing in her castmates.
The director, Mick Napier, smartly mixes up traditional games with some long-form experiments and the show also establishes some classic bonafides by importing musical director Jesse Case from the e.t.c. show and giving him an actual acoustic piano to tinkle. (Better yet, the video screens in the room are turned off.) Between the games and sketches, the cast dispenses various historical nuggets (there's room for a few more) about the development of the form and makes room for one of those very simple two-person scenes based entirely on one suggestion and designed not just to be funny, but to be true to life. On Monday night, Chelsea Devantez and Hans Holsen created just such a lovely scene.
"What if I told you I'm not attracted to you?" said she, fending him off. "Well, I'm attracted to you," he replied, hopefully. "So we're halfway there."
Napier, of course, is mostly a sketch-and-script guy, and thus he has paid a lot of attention here to sharp transitions: it's pure improv, but with great light cues and linkages. Are these the greatest improv stars in the city? Plenty would point to more famous names who pull this most remarkable of theatrical forms in new directions every night. But we needed a show like this — an entertaining evening, staged in a comfortable new room, and explaining what a city made, and has remade, every night of every week thereafter.
When: Mondays in an open run
Where: UP Comedy Club at Second City, 230 W. North Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $16 at 312-662-4562 and upcomedyclub.com