A Clown Car Named Desire (Second City e.t.c.): Firing on all cylinders

A Clown Car Named Desire (Second City e.t.c.): Firing on all cylinders

Reviewed by Tom Lawler

Second City e.t.c. presents A Clown Car Named Desire.

With the recent passing of Bernie Sahlins, the last surviving member of the trio that opened The Second City in 1959, it’s a worthy time as any to reflect on how this venerable comedy institution is holding up in its middle age. Having caught either a Mainstage or e.t.c. production at least a half dozen times over the years, I usually leave Pipers Alley with two thoughts: That was easily the funniest show I’ve seen this year and the only competition Second City has is with itself. Historically, what dazzles in a Second City show is the smart writing and quick and fearless wit of its cast.  

Based on the recent opening of Second City e.t.c.’s  37th revue, A Clown Car Named Desire, and after seeing last year’s e.t.c. production We’re All in The Room Together, it’s clear though that this creative team (Jeff-Award winning director Ryan Bernier returns to action for this year’s entry, as does half of the cast) remains obsessed with rebooting the concept of a sketch comedy revue. While last year’s show forcefully made the case for the old-fashioned, organic pleasures of being together in a theater to witness the magic of live entertainment, this year’s model loosely employs a theme of dreams and delusions to take repeated flights of fancy.

This translates to more music and original songs, more props and costumes – and some head-scratching departures. I’m thinking of a belabored sketch set in a laundromat and especially of the opener of Act II, which can best be described as a dance sequence for those who love EDM, the Blue Man Group and Tron.  This is certainly one way to grab the audience’s attention after the break and it was captivating on all levels, but it felt out of place with the rest of the show and wasn’t particularly comedic.

Best then to focus on the engine of a Second City production – its cast – and this Clown Car has a powerful one that’s firing on all cylinders. There is no more comfortable feeling as an audience member then being in a room with a comedian completely in control of his craft. There is no rushing, the timing and inflections are perfect and the comedian wraps you up with perfect set-ups like a warm blanket before yanking it away for the payoffs. Michael Lehrer is reason enough to see A Clown Car. . .

Small in stature, but ridiculously abundant in range, confidence and sly wit, Lehrer is in full command throughout this revue, especially in the last sketch in Act I when this e.t.c. production finally hits its stride. Playing a game show host who for reasons unexplained sounds just like Al Pacino, Lehrer does some fine improv work with a married couple pulled from the audience before the scene flowers into a riotous reenactment of this couple’s first date. We may have seen this improv game before, but not with these production touches and not with this cast. Top-notch.

Another example of when this stellar cast achieves the seemingly impossible? How about a satire of Tennessee Williams…could there possibly be any life left in that premise? Using a set of audience suggestions of dubious quality, these trained comedy assassins (especially e.t.c. newcomer Carisa Barreca as the southern belle) ruthlessly slayed us for a good seven or eight minutes with a parody of  A Streetcar Named Desire that I hoped would have gone twice that length.

Another time I appreciated director Bernier’s willingness to let these scenes and its cast truly stretch out was in a sketch set in an American Apparel that starts slow and eventually conquers you with his single-minded devotion to silliness. While the set-up again is obvious (you have to be a hipster to work at this chain), there’s no way to anticipate the fun and inventive lines here. (What does it mean to only eat Treegan? “It means I can only eat while up in a tree.”) A sublime ensemble showcase for Mike Kosinski, Chris Witaske and Brooke Breit, this scene is about two things: 1) each character trying to demonstrate they are more “hip” than the other and 2) each cast member trying their best to make the other laugh by varying their inflections and pronunciations to bizarre lengths.

As the American Apparel sketch goes on and on, it’s like staring at minimalist art canvas and getting drawn deeper and deeper into its patterns and orbit. This sketch seems destined to appear on a late night sketch show soon, but it will never been funnier than on this e.t.c. stage where it can truly bob and weave based on the nightly whims of its cast. Not to be missed.

Sometimes to truly appreciate the laughs, you need to show some sadness and Act I has a beautiful scene starring Kosinski and e.t.c. newcomer Punam Patel as a basketball-playing tomboy who has long harbored an unrequited crush on her best friend. As Patel tries (and hilariously falls short) when trying to compete with her buddy’s new girlfriend (who’s not only beautiful, but a physician), the aching pain her character feels as she battles for her friend’s heart makes the laughs all the more earned. She may not get her boy in the end, but in true Second City fashion, we get a callback later on that leaves us smiling.

Despite some detours in the early going, the cast of A Clown Car . . . is in peak form here, bringing us the best-in-class writing and performances we’ve come to expect from a Second City show.  Get down to Pipers Alley and enjoy these transcendent talents while you still can before they start zipping off to other destinations.  

Running Time: 2 hours with intermission

At Second City e.t.c. Theater, 1608 N. Wells St. 2nd Floor

 Written and performed by: Carisa Berreca, Brooke Breit, Mike Kosinski, Michael Lehrer, Punam Patel and Chris Witaske

 Directed by Ryan Bernier

 Musical Director: Jesse Case

 *Tuesdays, **Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm (*Starting on August 6,**Starting on July 2)

 Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and 11pm

 Sundays at 7pm

 Buy Tickets at www.secondcity.com or call 312-337-3992.

 Photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

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