"I see people out front," observes the sad-eyed man at the Second City e.t.c., "just crying."
And the locale of this carefully observed locus of human misery? A closed Chicago school? A funeral home? City Hall?
Nope — Aldi.
Crying at what? The lack of brand names?
The satirists at the Second City don't need to say: That edgy yet unnervingly accurate line alone sums it up. And while people might be crying out front at Aldi — we're just kidding, Mr. Giant German Retailer — the people down front at the e.t.c. on Friday night were laughing into their generic drinks. The new e.t.c. revue, "A Clown Car Named Desire," is one of those shows that seems to happen every two or three years on Wells Street when the intimacy of the venue comes together with a hot young cast and the second stage leaps past the first. So, summer tourists, consider yourself lucky if the main stage sells out. This second-banana clown car isn't reinventing the form — although it does have a few transitions worthy of a warped, Chicago-style Cirque du Soleil — but e.t.c. has got one funny, high-stakes show on these polished boards. These days, what with agents and scouts hiding in corners, the e.t.c. feels red-hot. That's why the stakes here rise so fast.
Aldi is not the only retailer taking a kick to the cash register. There is the matter of Bed, Bath and Beyond expecting customers to risk entering its doors without knowing what lies beyond the bed and the bath. There's a delicious (and very "Saturday Night Live") takedown of the irony-free cool kids who make up the gestalt at American Apparel, which cares only, as they say here, about the Wick-Buck-Lo hipster triangle (if you can't translate, American Apparel does not want you). Much amusement is derived from what happens when the store offers to give a shoe to a starving kid in Africa for every pair of shoes purchased, and then the customer returns the shoe. If you can picture a waif-like AA employee trekking through the bush in search of a now-illicit piece of footwear that must be repossessed, you get the idea.
And then there's good old Walgreen's. All you need for a takedown of the ubiquitous pharmacist and general emporium is a really good first line of a scene. Like this one: "So have you ever had medical treatment at Walgreen's before?" It all goes beautifully from there, given that the "doctor" must combine medical services with watching out for spills in aisle two. We're just kidding, Mr. Giant American Retailer.
The (mostly) new cast at e.t.c. comes with a very pleasing set of contrasting personalities. The most dangerous one of the bunch is the experienced Michael Lehrer, a kind of half-crazed Steve Martin with blasts of menacing darkness, who adds a lot of the requisite edge. You want Lehrer in your cast when you want Rahm in your show, and the actor does not disappoint. Still, the funniest bit of Chicago politics on the docket is not an Emanuel appearance but a letter to the mayor. "Dear Rahm Emanuel," it goes. "My name is Mackenzie. You did not close my school. Please close my school."
Carisa Barreca, a woman with bona fide musical chops and an appearance that allows for references to platinum blondes and Barbies, is another high-smarts asset here, as is Chris Witaske. Witaske is the Regular Chicago Dude of this group, but he's also a very decent physical comedian.
In the opening sketch of the night, a subtler-than-usual take on gay marriage, Witaske offers up a strikingly complex straight guy (a breed not known for its complexity), caught between dealing with change and loving his gay brother. It's a warm start to a show that ends up being one of the most emotional revues in recent Second City history. Brooke Breit, who can scrunch up her face but remain semi-irascible, finds a sweet spot of her own somewhere between Laurie Metcalf and Tracey Ullman. And Mike Kosinski, whose hair starts about 3 miles back from where his face ends, has that University of Chicago dweeby intellectual thing going — which I always like to see in a Second City revue, because you feel the pull and continuity of history. Punam Patel needs to dig her way more deeply into the show, because her intense characters come with bursting surprises. There's just not yet enough.
Directors often don't get enough credit at Second City, but it's clear what Ryan Bernier has done here, with a layered and textured show that doesn't get snagged by its own, excessive ambition but really flies along. The one lengthy audience-involvement improv — which gets a couple up to re-enact their first date — is one of the best such pieces I've seen, not least because everything is set up to empower the volunteers, who are carefully protected and made to look like heroes of their own story, however they might mumble through it. It's an unusually generous scenario that connects this cast to its audience and offers the emotional underpinning you always find in the best Second City revues.
When: Open run
Where: Second City e.t.c., 1608 N. Wells St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $23-$28 at 312-337-3992 or secondcity.com