Live From the Second City--1961 | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Live From the Second City--1961 

The funniest show in a Chicago theater this weekend may well be playing not on a stage but on a screen--this rarely shown videotape of a live performance at Second City's original space (1842 N. Wells) just a couple of years after the troupe's founding. Under the meticulous direction of pioneering off-Loop theater genius Paul Sills, the show features a crack crew of young comers--Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Eugene Troobnick, Mina Kolb, Andrew Duncan, company cofounder Howard Alk, and musical director Bill Mathieu. Thanks to the actors' perfect timing and lively physicalizations, remarkably little here is dated; even such routines as a West Side Story takeoff parodying Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's probe of mob influence in labor unions and a vignette in which a veddy English Sir Edmund Hillary ascends Mount Everest in search of a yeti are still hilarious. The most memorable bit is "Museum Piece": Arkin plays a grungy, road-weary folksinger giving Harris, an earnest but uptight culture vulture, lessons in spontaneity while trying to pick her up at the Art Institute. (He wants her pad more than her bod.) Harris's daffy delicacy is nothing short of sublime here and in her mercurial portrayal of a teenager being quizzed by her anxious father (the droll Darden) about her experiments with pot and petting. This whimsically witty, wryly hip, refreshingly uncynical show also includes a rubber-limbed, squirmily sexy Paul Sand trying to learn "How to Win a Friend" from an instructional record; Arkin, Darden, and Troobnick as eccentric academics analyzing the day when "Football Comes to the University of Chicago" (the ball was changed from pigskin to calfskin, they theorize, because otherwise the Muslims couldn't touch it and the Jews couldn't eat it); a merrily Mozartean opera lampoon; and in a finale that's strangely millennial, Arkin (a virtuosic vocal caricaturist) as a Yiddishe Noah guiding his arkful of cantankerous critters through what seems the end of the world. This revelatory video shows the genuine magic at work in this brilliant ensemble's interplay, making this first entry in a day-long "Second City Film Festival" essential viewing for anyone who cares about the art of comedy. Second City E.T.C., Piper's Alley, 1608 N. Wells, 312-337-3992. Saturday, December 18, 10 AM. $5 (proceeds benefit Gilda's Club Chicago). --Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Morton Shapiro.

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