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Chicago by John Olson

Sex and The Second City

It doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the HBO series whose title and advertising art it imitates (although it also has a character named Samantha), and it doesn't have much to do with Chicago, either. The capitalization of "The" in the title should tip off the public that it refers to the Chicago comedy club The Second City, not the (former) second city itself.

A more accurate though less marketable title for this piece might have been "Gender and The Second City," because the show is mostly about gender differences and their impact on marriage and dating. Sketches from The Second City archives (some reportedly written by James Belushi and Nia Vardalos) have been woven together by Kirk Hanley, Maribeth Monroe and TJ Shanoff into a four-performer entertainment that's somewhere between book musical and revue, with a dash of improv. A Chicago couple, Richard and Denise (Rob Janas and Katie Caussin), are at each other's throats and decide to divorce while their respective divorce attorneys, Mark and Samantha (Brian Gallivan and Tina Gluschenko), fall in love after discovering they've met in a chat room for lawyers under the screen names "WellHungJury" and "HabeasCorpusHottie."

Denise doesn't think Richard listens very well because he doesn't understand that when she says, "Max and Joan just returned from a fantastic vacation in Mexico," she really means, "Why won't you take me on a romantic vacation?" and when he says, "Let's go on a romantic vacation somewhere none of our friends have been," it sounds to her like "let's go somewhere none of our friends will see us so they won't see how fat I've gotten." Richard's pretty insensitive, right? Well, what can you expect from a guy who learned everything he knows about women from "a scientific journal called Maxim."

Their marriage counselor suggests they socialize with Max and Joan (also played by Gallivan and Gluschenko), a couple they consider role models. The four get together for a boys vs. girls game of Pictionary using the deluxe $68 set that Richard bought with "half his weekly salary" (she's an osteopath and makes a lot more money than he does). The telepathic communication of the girlfriends (Joan can guess "Bart Starr" from a dot that Denise draws) is initially no match for the literalness of the men (Richard's clue for "French Foreign Legion" is one of the worst puns in the history of the English language). Eventually, the boys figure out how to cheat and then they display the poor manners of White Sox fans as they become the worst winners imaginable.

At the suggestion of their therapist, Richard and Denise role-play each other in song. Richard (as Denise) sings of the joys of buying even the tackiest dress at "70% Off" while Denise (as Richard) lists the male behaviors that must be performed "Or Else I Won't be a Man."

As painful as Richard and Denise's marriage is, they don't have much luck on the singles scene either. The audience helps out with improv as Richard humiliates himself on TV in a "Dating Game" parody in which a real-life audience member chooses a rough and tumble unemployed guy (played by Ms. Claussin) over whiny Richard and a "hetero-curious" contestant (Gallivan). As Denise, Claussin first improvises a bad date with an audience member, then a scripted date with Gallivan as a young slacker who works at "Lamp World." After getting Denise back to his place, the date insists on singing "American Pie" to her - in its entirety, alone, without interruption - and starts the song over whenever she's so bold as to join in.

After a mock eleven o'clock number in which Richard celebrates his self-centeredness ("My Own Little World"), the divorce attorneys tie the knot, inspiring Richard and Denise to remarry. This time, though, the couple makes more realistic vows, like "I promise to carry around an optimistic attitude for at least two years," and "I promise to have affairs every Tuesday and Thursday when I'm 'playing tennis'."

Director Ron West and his likable, attractive cast deliver 90 minutes of fun without any slow spots. Gallivan and Gluschenko show versatility in creating a variety of urban characters and Ms. Claussin's a pretty convincing southwest sider. Janas, the only performer who doesn't play multiple roles, creates a convincing egocentric and insecure Richard.

"Sex" demonstrates The Second City's unquestioned gift for exposing the fallacious thinking of Americans today, whether the targets are personal or political. The observations of this show clearly resonated with the audience. At the theater where Jason Robert Brown's musical exploration of a failed marriage, The Last Five Years, enjoyed its American premiere in 2001, Sex and The Second City struck more chords and nerves in its exploration of the same territory (Richard and Denise have been married seven years, but to Richard "it seems longer"). Stephen Sondheim once said of Company that he and George Furth wanted their musical about marriage to make the audience scream with laughter and then go home and be unable to sleep. Sex and The Second City works pretty much the same way. Even in these times, one's spouse or relationship can be a more unsettling target for satire than something like the policies of George W. Bush.

Sex and The Second City runs through September 25, 2004 at the Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL, before going on national tour. Performance times are: Tuesdays-Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday (9/19 only) at 2:30 and 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35-$40 and are available by calling the Northlight Theatre box office at 847.673.6300. Student tickets are $20.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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