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Dumbness Reigns At Second City's New e.t.c. Revue

By Matt Byrne in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 24, 2013 3:00PM


While the aggressive, industrial-leaning interstitial music used throughout A Clown Car Named Desire conjures thoughts of Yeezus, another hotly anticipated work that premiered last week, the similarities all but end there. Clown Car, the 37th revue to grace the intimate e.t.c. Theatre, is a much less nasty, brutish affair, full of sight gags, deliberately hammy performances, and bits of crowd-pleasing audience participation.

After the requisite musical number, the show kicks off with a pair of scenes that embrace, and then totally deviate from, the social commentary that has become Second City's bread and butter. The first features a fratty dude sharing an awkward pre-prom encounter with his brother's boyfriend, which almost completely avoids the gay panic tropes that often sinks these sort of sketches. The following scene, apparently inspired by real life events, casts actual new mom Brooke Breit as a mother reentering the workplace, and slowly builds towards a climactic gross-out gag that was as welcome as it was unexpected. As the show goes on, it becomes clear that this e.t.c. troupe is more interested in the lovably dumb, over-the-top physicality celebrated in the latter scene than in the first scene's endeavor to Say Things About Our Culture.

The show really hits its stride in its middle third, as aggressively dumb, message-free scenes become the norm partway through Act One. Silly props, absurdly over-the-top costumes, and filthy one-and-done sight gags dominate, leading up to a climactic, act-ending game show sequence, hosted by the maniacal wild card Michael Lehrer, that lovingly casts two (completely willing) audience volunteers as overlords of a deftly performed improv scene.

The second act's first proper scene (which is preceded by a brief and wonderfully unnecessary Tron-inspired callback) is a lengthy, goofy scene succeeds in poking fun at the uber-hip in ways that most don't. The scene lacks the tone deafness and thinly veiled insecurity that permeates most anti-Williamsburg/Logan Square tirades; it draws primarily from the never-ending well of comedy that is talking with a funny affect. The scene's three performers ceaselessly pose dramatically while coolly (and weirdly) discussing the intricacies of charitable footwear and frozen yogurt; the scene destroys, even with an audience that generally skews older and is, at least potentially, unaware of the specificity of the deeper references.

There were only a few moments in the show that proved problematic, including one scene that cast the talented and generally underutilized Punam Patel as a thuggish, yet sensitive, young woman coming to terms with the fact that her childhood best friend/longtime crush has been born again as a yuppie. Much of the humor is (unfairly) at the expense of Patel's lower class character, rather than her boring, straight-laced scene partner, played by the charmingly gawky Mike Kosinski. This undercooked sketch halfway redeems itself emotionally by the end but, ultimately, a bad taste lingers.

Buried within the "Special Thanks" section of the program is a tip of the hat to Second City alum and under-referenced beacon of hammy insanity, Chris Farley. The unofficial patron saint of Clown Car, Farley carried a bulldozer's worth of charm through every scene, playing sweet, clumsy, rage-prone goofballs; the best moments in this newest revue come when the multi-talented cast channels his anarchic humanist spirit.

A Clown Car Named Desire is playing six shows per week. Second City is at 1616 N. Wells St.