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Comedy Review : Second City Is Playing It Too Safe

October 12, 1987|DUNCAN STRAUSS

The six members of Second City's national touring company clearly are talented individuals, well grounded in theater and improvisation, with a knack for anticipating each other's every move.

These traits emerged as largely a strength, and partly a limitation, in the comedy troupe's show Friday at Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre. It was thoroughly a pleasant, entertaining presentation, but the group could have boosted the level of the performance several notches with more risk-taking--and a tough editor.

A need-to-trim case in point: A sketch involving three old gents discussing the recent passing--and funeral--of a crony. Beneath the crusty trio's banter, the piece operated as a poignant rumination on mortality and death. It had its share of laughs ("(he) was a paradox: charismatic, yet dull. . . .").

It also had about the longest running time of the evening. With some prudent pruning, the sketch could have played as a touching, poignant and funny commentary about the bleaker side of the human condition. As it was, it still flirted with that kind of impact. But by the blackout, some of us felt as old and tired as the elderly threesome portrayed on stage.

It was this surprising tendency to go beyond the joke, or past the point, that made the sextet's breezy hit-and-run humor even more welcome. For instance, in the second half of the 100-minute show, there was a fine, fleeting moment of broad comedy when the audience was gang-mimed by the company's four males (Bill Cusack, Tom Bastounes, Jeremy Piven and Evan Gore.

The setting was a men's room where the hand dryer malfunctioned, first by shutting off too quickly. Suddenly, it was issuing a sustained, potent blast of air, blowing the men across the floor as they struggled valiantly against this indoor hurricane. Brief and brilliantly executed, it would have done Marcel Marceau (or four Marceaus) proud.

It was just this kind of dazzling physical comedy--and the glimpses of similar adroitness at verbal slinging--that made their tiny, rather safe improvisational output so underwhelming. Of Friday's nearly two dozen bits and pieces (including mini-sketches and a fistful of songs), only three were improv exercises.

Would the audience really chuckle or clap less if the company, which bills itself as an improvisational troupe, added a few more improv segments? Even some truly daring ones that carried equal chances of soaring or stumbling?

Under those circumstances, folks on both sides of the stage might find the evening more exhilarating and rewarding. Now if this were just any comedy-theater group passing through town, these concerns might not matter as much, if they were raised at all.

But this is Second City, approaching its 30th year of training some of comedy's finest actors, writers, and directors (a tiny cross section of alumni: Elaine May, Dan Aykroyd, Paul Mazursky Shelley Long, Alan Alda and Bill Murray).

With that kind of legacy, it's almost criminal that a current company of Second Citizens would even hint at a conservative, underachieving, that's-all-she-rote performance. And that's no joke.

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