It's the time of year when theater critics gird themselves for their nth annual Nutcracker/Christmas Carol/Wonderful Life cycle. That's not a complaint. Necessarily. I once described the yuletide season as a "psychic pogrom," but I've mellowed since then. For one thing, I get to enjoy holiday shows like Strawdog's The Long Christmas Ride Home that aren't out to deck anybody's halls—or wreck them, either—but to tell an interesting story really well. For another, I find repetition as seductive as anybody. There's a sweet sense of deja vu in watching Clara/Scrooge/George Bailey come through their dark nights of the soul for the millionth time. And pleasure too, if it's done with some panache.
Seeing the Second City's 104th main-stage production made me realize how much Chicago's oldest continuing sketch-revue theater has in common with the shows of winter. Both play to festive crowds—lots of out-of-towners and business groups, in the Second City's case. And both rely on familiar tropes to relax us and assure us that we came to the right place. To give even first-timers that homey twinge of deja vu. At the Goodman Theatre, it ain't A Christmas Carol until the sparkly ghost flies. At 1616 N. Wells the orthodox experience entails an ensemble of six doling out topical humor in skits averaging about five minutes apiece. Plus booze, of course.
The current Second City show throws just the smallest wrench into the formula—ironically, with an evening on the theme of deja vu.
Perhaps the most unprecedented aspect of Fool Me Twice, Deja Vu is the fact that its title actually alludes to its content. That never happens at Second City. The lead-off piece presents a case of inverse deja vu: In an office break room, a working guy played by Jamison Webb starts getting weirded out as, one by one, his colleagues enter and make arch, insinuating comments about how it's 1990 and wouldn't it be amazing if there was, say, "some sort of electronic mail" to make communication easier? By the time they're snickeringly discussing whether that new band Nirvana will mean anything to people 25 years from now, Webb's character is pretty well convinced that time is out of joint. The punch line has him figuring it out.
Naturally, given the theme, the bit comes back later in the show. But otherwise the uncanny sense of events repeating themselves gets only cursory attention over the course of the 25 sketches preceding intermission. It's after the break that the payoff comes. The relatively brief final stretch of Fool Me Twice revisits earlier skits, tweaking a gag here, reversing the point of view there so that, for instance, a vignette involving a Little League batter who'd much rather be auditioning for the school musical returns to us told from the pitcher's perspective. Fool Me Twice is quite literally out to fool us twice with the same material.
What a cool, ambitious idea, right? I imagine director Ryan Bernier and the main-stage ensemble catching their collective breath as the grandeur of the conceit, its long arc, started sinking in. The execution, however, leaves something to be desired. Quite a bit, actually. After the long buildup of the first act (25 is the usual number of sketches in an entire revue), the second comes across as a cutesy, rather slapdash afterthought—not only because of its brevity but because its series of codas just doesn't seem necessary. The new iterations aren't any wittier than the originals, and—with a couple exceptions—they don't heighten the stakes or bring off a can-you-top-this completion. All in all, they feel more like alternate drafts that got recycled rather than thrown away. Environmentally sound, maybe, but less than satisfying. The ultimate effect is to reduce the show to a single, weak joke.
I was sorry to see things end this way; the ensemble is smoothly competent, with a nice sense of the absurd, particularly well displayed in a sketch where the three women (Chelsea Devantez, Rashawn Nadine Scott, and Sarah Shook) play have-it-all moms running 15,000 K races with babies sucking at each breast. Even conventional scenes, like one involving a family out for dinner, have a tang when Paul Jurewicz is playing the child. The ensemble can be fun. If they want to screw with the Second City formula, though, they're going to need a bigger wrench. v