Second City's Baltimore satire hits more often than misses
Published: January 12, 2011
The Second City Does Baltimore
Through Feb. 20 at Center Stage
As the lights dimmed on opening night of The Second City Does Baltimore at Center Stage, some of the more skeptical audience members may have felt a tad worried. The set was Baltimore boilerplate: pink plastic flamingos, painted window screens, and Formstone—painted purple. Where was the dark stuff? The boarded-ups, the abandoned shopping carts, the flashing blue lights? And who did these out-of-towners think they were anyway, coming here to make fun of us to our faces?
It’s the sort of reaction the famous Chicago-based comedy troupe is used to in relation to its commissioned, city-based productions. A few comics swoop into town, spend a few days getting to know a city, and fly off to write about it. Several months later, poof! A detailed, site-specific production appears. It seems a recipe for disaster, or at least cliché. But this time around Second City has pulled it off. From an amusing beginning on opening night, the production built to the point where the audience was howling before the players could even open their mouths. Some people had that doubled-over, tear-streaked look you get from laughter so sustained it’s painful. It’s that good.
The format—songs interspersed with brief one-liners, longer skits, and improv—resembles Saturday Night Live, and for good reason. Many of the TV show’s alumni, from Bill Murray to Chris Farley to Tina Fey, began their careers with Second City. And some of this production’s material has clearly been culled from the troupe’s archives. (One brief gem, for instance, has Niccole Thurman, one of the six-person cast, as a blow-up doll.) These departures from the Baltimore theme are sometimes the best parts; as on-point as many of the local jokes are, certain skits feel like they’re name-dropping, as if by including enough tidbits of local lore the show might gain credibility.
That said, several of the Baltimore-centric portions of the production really kill. A “preview” of The Wire as a musical is a standout. Cast member Megan Wilkins emerges to introduce the piece in the guise of Irene Lewis, Center Stage’s outgoing artistic director. With her slight hunch, silver wig, and glasses perched on the end of her nose, she’s bound to get laughs from Center Stage regulars. Other cast members parody scenes from The Wire in song—including one that’s too good to give away. (Hint: It features Bunk and McNulty.) Throughout, “Irene Lewis” strides onstage to querulously quote from faux reviews, including one that describes the musical as “one part Annie, one part Wicked, and just a smidge Dances with Wolves.”
You’d have to be a big Wire fan to understand all the jokes in this bit, and the production doesn’t stop to explain them if you don’t. This assumption of a shared body of knowledge runs throughout the show, and in part explains its power. A song about three former city mayors—William Donald Schaefer, Sheila Dixon, and Kurt Schmoke—is, for instance, a rapid-fire, rhyming ditty chock-a-block with inside jokes, including references to Schmoke’s attempts to decriminalize drugs and Schaefer’s reputation for misogyny. Other pieces include a jug band tune denouncing Bob Irsay, a cocktail party making fun of the richies of Ruxton, and a riff on the term “Smalltimore.” The humor is at times so Bawlmerific that one has to wonder if the cast members, not being natives, get their own jokes. (Their performance is so airtight it hardly matters.)
Here and there, a number falls flat. A sketch on the “Real Hons of Baltimore” breaks no new ground on an already oversaturated topic, though the punch line—a reference to Café Hon owner Denise Whiting’s recent trademark troubles—is topical enough to deserve an appreciative grunt. And some of the short bits, like the one involving a passionate kiss between mother and son, are real groaners, though short enough to remain innocuous. The production also inevitably fails to touch on every local touchstone. But a talk-back scene with “Irene Lewis” cleverly undercuts any criticisms that might arise on that account. Lewis asks for comments from the audience, and cast members scattered throughout the theater oblige. In the guise of various Baltimoreans—an arabber, a MICA student, a Hopkins surgeon—they complain about their exclusion from the production. It’s a funny meta moment that manages to absolve Second City of pleasing everybody.
As good as the rest of the show is, the cast’s improv talent blows everything else out of the water. Periodically, the audience is asked to name something from a category—a book genre, a type of relationship between two people, a story title. Upon this scrap of information, the performers repeatedly build a complicated, unexpected masterpiece. This isn’t your college improv troupe; it’s a joy to see how attuned the performers are to each other’s wavelengths, and the awareness that they are inventing everything on the spot only makes what they come up with funnier. On opening night, perhaps the best bit of the evening was a piece of audience-participatory, noir-style improv. A man named Jim was pulled from his seat and cast as a “private dick,” while cast member Tim Sniffen mimed typing, simultaneously narrating the story in a dark alley, Dragnet voice. Jim played along, at one point walking “like a drunken belly dancer,” because Sniffen said so. At the end he got so into his role that he “shot” every character in the mystery, rather than just the culprit of the crime. Clutching his chest, to shrieks of laughter from the audience, Sniffen said, “I have just enough life left in me to narrate you back to your chair.”
Bravo, Second City.
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