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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Second City 50th Anniversary Tour
Chase Me, Comrade!
Much Ado About Nothing

Second City 50th Anniversary
Rachel Miller, Tim Ryder, Katie Rich, Abby McEnany; (top from l-r) Edgar Blackmon
and Rob Belushi

Photo: Tom McGrath
For the second straight summer, a group of actors from Chicago's famed Second City troupe is appearing on the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, doing a mixture of scripted and improvised comedy routines. This year's show, dubbed The Second City 50th Anniversary Tour, is an improvement on last year's City of Nutterly Love: Funny as Bell!. In part that's because there are fewer awkward attempts by the Chicago actors to show their familiarity with Philadelphia (although we do get a few jokes about Arlen Specter). But it's also because most of the skits have stood the test of time. Not everything works, but the versatile cast makes this a very agreeable evening.

50th Anniversary Tour is a mixture of recent skits (some taken from the troupe's popular web series "Sassy Gay Friend") mixed with material from throughout the troupe's history (the oldest skit is a 1961 piece originally performed by Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris, updated with some unfortunately awkward profanity). Mixed in are skits written by Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Fred Willard, plus some recent skits that take on everything from hypocritical politicians to the ineffectiveness of the Philadelphia Police's bicycle patrol ("This is a polo shirt," one of the cops says, "not a bulletproof vest"). Some of these skits are hilarious; the best is about a mother who poses as her teenage son on the Internet. There are also several improvised skits with audience participation; the night I attended, one of these was a musical in which actress Rachel Miller rhymed "ka-blooey" with "ratatouille."

If no one in the cast dazzles you with talent, each is clearly very skilled, and it's fun to see their minds working to come up with just the right line. The best impressions are made by Miller, Edgar Blackmon, and Tim Ryder, who have the quickest wits. They're joined by Abby McEnany, Katie Rich and Rob Belushi (who, as one of his co-stars points out, looks more like Peter Brady than his famous father Jim Belushi).

All told, this year's show is a mixed bag, but it's got so many funny moments that it's worth checking out.

The Second City 50th Anniversary Tour runs through July 25, 2010 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $20 to $41 and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.


Chase Me, Comrade
Zoran Kovcic, Carl Smith
and Rachel Holmes

Photo: Rick Prieur
For the ninth straight summer, Hedgerow Theatre is presenting a farce by one of Britain's most popular comic playwrights, Ray Cooney. This year it's Chase Me, Comrade!, a door-slamming 1960s romp about a Soviet ballet star whose decision to defect to the West causes complication after complication. He ends up at the home of a British Naval Commander who has left for a fishing trip. Soon, a high government official shows up with some important paperwork for the Commander, and Gerry Buss, the wimpy boyfriend of the Commander's daughter, ends up impersonating the Commander. Amazingly, the government official buys it, even though Gerry seems far too young to be an officer. Before the evening is over, Gerry will have assumed a few more false identities, donned a tutu and tights, and shimmied up a chimney, all in the name of comedy.

Chase Me, Comrade! is one of those shows where nearly every moment requires a suspension of disbelief. Why is the government official rip-roaring drunk just seconds after having a drink? Why is the Commander knocking on the door of his own house, demanding to be let in? (Doesn't he have a key?) Later, after he's entered the house, the Commander hears a knock at the door and tries to answer it, but his daughter and her friends pretend that they don't hear a knock; after he protests three times and is rebuffed three times, the Commander merely shrugs his shoulders and departs, allowing the shenanigans to continue. Real people don't behave like that, and after too many similar episodes, Catch Me, Comrade! becomes more exasperating than enjoyable. To his credit, Cooney has come up with a lot of funny lines, even though two of the best jokes are stolen (one from Groucho Marx, the other from Stan Laurel).

Director Jared Reed keeps things moving fast, but the seams show anyway. In part that's because there's an uneasy mixture of acting styles. The older actors (including Bob Liger as the Commander, Zoran Kovcic as the government official, and Bob Meenan as a Cockney gardener) seem comfortable with the material, but most of the younger cast members come off as cloying, frantic and unnatural. The reluctant hero Gerry is played by Carl Smith, who, with his mild manner, thin frame and drawn cheekbones, suggests a young David Hyde Pierce. Smith has a good flair for physical comedy, yet he has no chemistry with his love interest (Tara Haupt). His Gerry seems so disconnected from reality that he never becomes the kind of hero you want to root for.

Cooney's farces aren't meant to be taken seriously, and he would probably take pleasure in hearing Chase Me, Comrade! called "unconvincing." If you can turn off your mind for a couple hours, you may well enjoy this show, as much of the audience certainly did the day I attended. But while there are some good jokes and good performances, the overall impression is one of nearly everyone, from the playwright down, trying too hard.

Chase Me, Comrade! runs through September 12, 2010, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pa. Ticket prices range from $22 to $25, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at www.hedgerowtheatre.org or in person at the box office.


Theatre Horizon is presenting Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in public parks throughout suburban Philadelphia through this weekend. Purists may be dismayed: The play has been cut down to an hour for easy consumption, so it's hardly a definitive version. The basics of the plot are still here, although some of the funniest lines are, by necessity, missing. Still, director Erin Frederick keeps things very entertaining, and introduces some clever business to make up for the lack of furniture and scenery.

The cast is uniformly fine; each actor has a strong voice and a good command of the language. And there are two standouts: Emily Rast and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen as the battling lovers Beatrice and Benedick. Rast says her lines with a wry, knowing grin, as if her Beatrice is determined to prove she's the smartest person in Messina—but she meets her match in Stanton-Ameisen, who plays Benedick with a gleam in his eye and an ingratiating attitude. The two actors have terrific chemistry, and they make this Much Ado a lot of fun. They deserve much more than an hour of your time.

Much Ado About Nothing is presented by Theatre Horizon and will be performed through July 25 at various locations throughout the region. For tickets and locations, visit www.theatrehorizon.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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