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This can be a hard world to live in for those of us with a narrow sense of humor. Comedy is a very precise art, and we exist in a pop-culture vortex that more often than not has terrible aim. There’s nothing wrong with the pleasantly regressive slapstick and gross-out gags that keep the hoi polloi in stitches — Carrot Top and Larry the Cable Guy have to put food on the table, too — but there’s something sublime about material that is truly, honest-to-god funny.
The word "sublime," though, sounds so academic when recalling a show that afterwards makes you wonder if you haven’t spent the last two hours doing ab workouts. So it is with Chicago’s The Second City, back at the Rep to make us all breathless with laughter in that way that improvisational theater does so well. The five players — Lyndsay Hailey, Nicole C. Hastings, Barry Hite, Tim Stoltenberg, and Chris Witaske — are so effortlessly clever it’s almost shocking to think that there’s hardly any script guiding them between punch lines.
That’s why it’s hilarious — it’s so obviously extemporaneous, and yet still tremendously witty. Watching actors stroll around on stage to Wilde or Shaw is funny, but it’s usually pretty evident that you’re watching Wilde or Shaw’s wit being performed; the actors themselves, while they no doubt need a decent enough comedic acumen to get it right, have the benefit of lines that have already been laughed at a few times. The Second City, on the other hand, pulled suggestions from the audience and implemented them to such a T that it was almost eerie, like a magician who guesses what card you took from the deck. Such theatrical sleight of hand requires people who are actually funny, and not just good actors who can deliver a one-liner they’ve already bounced off the dressing room mirror a few hundred times.
Most of the show was made up of short sketches, some so rapid-fire that they were essentially animated punch lines. Besides a few chairs, there were no props, and the actors needed no costumes other than business attire. With piano accompaniment, they went on first dates and camping trips, had job interviews and discussed pressing family matters. There was enough profanity to make their improvisation pointedly racy, but not so much that it stifled their repartee or made it distasteful. Without the rehearsal stiffness that sometimes taints the stage, they hardly seemed like actors, but they pulled wit out of the air with such ease that it seems wrong to call them comedians.
As promised, there was a bit of audience participation — terror struck as the lights came up and an actress strolled down one aisle to grab an audience member at random. Her selection may not have been quite as on his toes as the actors themselves — who can blame him — but it was a good addition to the show’s variety. The crowd as a whole was enthusiastically responsive, crying out suggestions for scenes and characters (although there were a few inappropriate proposals, probably due to the free beer and wine provided beforehand at BrewHaHa).
The Second City, of course, is famous for sending its graduates on to Saturday Night Live, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see any of the players from this production appear there someday. To be genuinely funny is a rare talent, and it’s not being wasted at The Rep for the next week and a half. It’s refreshing to see comedy that is shrewd, eloquent, and ribald; the only problem is that by the time it’s over you still want more improv, more laughs. Good thing there’s 40 years of SNL reruns to fall back on.
The Second City continues until October 23. Shows start at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. on Sunday.