The Reviews Are In

(Warning – some show spoilers ahead)

‘Between Barack’ Funniest Second City Show In Years

The Chicago Tribune
Chris Jones

Friday, March 23, 2007

If you take the hilarious new Second City revue as a cultural barometer, the strained candidacy of an unloved Hillary Rodham Clinton is being slowly crushed by a charming rival with a Kenyan daddy and a chameleonic ability to be black, white, Jewish, Latino, gay or, in a pinch, a soccer mom. All depending on who is doing the projecting.

Obama as malleable slate for liberal hopes and dreams is the uber text of “Between Barack and a Hard Place,” the funniest mainstage show on Wells Street in several years. And in one drop-dead-funny sketch late in the show, that leaves a frustrated Hillary (as played with buttoned-down veracity by the pitch-perfectly geeky Molly Erdman) stuck desperately learning how to be loved. As Erdman plays Hillary, her sincere, recognizable attempt to forge a likable laugh comes out mostly as a series of demonic gurgles.

Far more than in recent years, the show is suffused with political themes — including a mournful Erdman love ballad titled “Where Was This Al Gore Before?” that manages a delicious rhyme between “Tipper” and “zipper.” “If the Polar Icecaps Melt,” Erdman goes on, warming to her once-soporific, now-rehabilitated idol, “I’ll Share My Raft With You.”

You could attribute the rise in sharply topical material to the power of the likes of Jon Stewart and (ex-Second Citizen) Stephen Colbert, who do most of their hiring on Wells Street. Not coincidentally, every hopeful male in this show sports a shiny shirt, a striped tie and a short, politico-style haircut. If the best ticket out of Second City to national fame used to be either outrageous edge in the John Belushi or Chris Farley mold, or irony in the Bill Murray, it’s now more a matter of looking like a fake news anchor or a slick Georgetown striver. That’s the market, and Second City surely has adjusted.

But in all fairness, this show has plenty of nods to the old days. The acerbic, caustic Joe Canale, who had a dazzling, standout show on opening night, has the single funniest routine involving a live audio tour of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s dispensed live from behind a door by a South Side Chicagaw character inclined to confuse Reuben sandwiches with the Rubenesque, and unimpressed by one Mon-ETTE picture of a stack of wheat at 9, followed by a picture of another stack of wheat at, “like, 9:30.” This killer skit, performed by Canale and the promising Brad Morris, owes something to “Da Bears” but has a far more complex cultural perspective.

The short “blackouts” are uncommonly good here too. There’s one about Attention Surplus Disorder (kid, still, smiling). And early in the show, a wife looking for her husband is told by an Indian character in her living room that hubby is playing cards elsewhere, having outsourced the evening. “Can you fix my computer?” she replies.

Review of ‘Between Barack and a Hard Place’
Copley News Service
by Dan Zeff

Friday, March 23, 2007

Second City calls its 94th revue “Between Barack and a Hard Place” and the red-hot junior senator from Illinois is all over the show. The first sketch is an ensemble piece that tweaks Obama’s campaign to appeal to all segments of the American electorate, which means in Second City parlance Obama reaching out to illegal Hispanic immigrants, women, gays, and the bigot lobby.

The opening Obama sketch sets the tone for the evening. It’s well-paced, well-acted, very funny, and almost affectionate in its satire. As comic performers, the current Second City ensemble is as good as we’ve seen in recent years. And they are collaborating on a revue that produces continuous laughs from skits that are just the right length.

There are maybe two dozen sketches in the revue, excluding quickie blackouts and only one seemed a little weak – a send-up of how other countries fake their military assistance to the United States in the Iraq war but ultimately bail out. It’s a sharp idea but falters on its one-joke premise. Still, as satire its heart is in the right place.

The revue covers the usual broad spectrum of topics–gay/straight relationships, terrorism, bickering husbands and wives, race, Hillary Clinton, improv interaction with the audience, political incorrectness, and Al Gore. As comedy, “Between Barack and a Hard Place” gets a very high grade. But spectators who prefer satire that draws blood may be disappointed. This could be the least angry Second City revue in recent memory. Inevitably, President George W. Bush comes in for a few swipes, but they are injected almost as an afterthought. The company has fun with numerous public targets, but the revue isn’t mad at anyone.

My favorite sketch was an improvisation bit with Joe Canale and Ithamar Enriquez playing a pair of grizzled and profane old jazz musicians playing a kazoo and a slide whistle. Some of the material is prepared but the best bits spring from suggestions from the audience. Improvisation is a chancy business. Some nights it works and some nights it’s dead in the water. On opening night, Canale and Enriquez were hitting on all cylinders, Enriquez in particular taking us back to the halcyon Second City days of John Belushi.

Brian Gallivan and Brad Morris engage in a hilarious set of verbal exchanges as a couple of delivery men loading potato chip boxes. Gallivan is gay and wry and Morris is straight and square. Their back and forth dialogue is a hoot commentary on gender stereotypes.

The females in the company give as good as they get. Amber Ruffin drolly plays the house African American, notably in a monologue as a funky black funeral director. And she hits some political correctness bull’s-eyes in the song “It’s Good to be Black,” expressing her relief that society’s current hostility toward Hispanics and Muslims finally gets blacks off the racist’s radar screen. Molly Erdman fondly sings her song in praise of Al Gore and does a nice spiky Hillary Clinton as well as playing an ineffectual guitarist trying to entertain three hypercritical old gaffers at a senior citizen’s home.

While public affairs get their share of attention in the revue, many of the choicest moments fall into the personal and domestic categories. A wife is furious because her husband is unable to take the death of their pet cat seriously. The first act finale is a clever bit about the stresses of being socially awkward. One hilarious sketch takes a visitor to the Art Institute of Chicago on a wild and salty audio tour of the collection. Morris conducts a funny improv bit as an accountant preparing the taxes of a ringside customer.

Director Matt Hovde keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, soundly harnessing the many talents of his cast. This is an exceptionally finished and well-rehearsed production, with no rough production edges. The venerable Ruby Streak presides over the musical accompaniment and J Branson has designed a glossy set that accommodates the action well, though nostalgic patrons may miss the traditional double door set that became a Second City hallmark for so many years.

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