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JEAN-PAUL SARTRE & RINGO

Second City

IN FIREWORKS LIE SECRET CODES and RUPERT'S BIRTHDAY

Gare Saint Lazare Players

There's nothing very extraordinary about the material in the new Second City show, Jean-Paul Sartre & Ringo. Most of it's based on clever but conventional juxtapositions: a boot camp for chaplains; a truck stop where hicks spout Descartes; a Coca-Cola communion; a Scared Straight-type high school assembly where former addicts give speeches designed to get the kids off comedy rather than drugs. With just a couple of savory exceptions, it ain't the meat that makes this 69th revue worth seeing.

It's the motion. The Second City's new six-member company makes this stuff swing.

And they do it in a way that's not so common there anymore: they do it collectively. This group's not only as smart and accomplished as any I can remember--they're also a whole lot more coherent. Recent past revues--like the 68th, for instance--leaned heavily on the splashy, the frenetic, and the idiosyncratic. There was Richard Kind, with his alligator mouth and flamingo poise; Jim Fay, with his clipped diction; Dan Castellaneta, with his quiet desperation. Each of them very funny, each of them pretty much self-contained.

Ensemble number 69 has its distinct personas, too. Kevin Crowley's just about perfected the hangdog deadpan stare. And Steve Assad's an R. Crumb character come to life, with his low-slung glide and his arms like a rubber windmill.

But for all their mannerisms, Crowley and Assad never stop communicating with their fellow performers, never estrange themselves from the material. The John Belushi Hot Dog Era would appear to be over. These kids are actors.

Well, most of them are, anyway. Aaron Freeman remains a comedian no matter what you do with him. The originator of the Council Wars satires--which carry the distinction of being the only pieces of political comedy as funny as Washington and Vrdolyak themselves--Freeman simply can't assume a character or participate in a scene without making it absolutely clear that this is Aaron Freeman the pundit speaking, and nobody else. He's simply not a team player.

Director Bernard Sahlins has reacted appropriately, giving Freeman a couple of solid chances to indulge his tendencies--especially in a "Meet the Candidate" spot in which he gets to hold forth while nominally portraying Jesse Jackson. In exchange for this bit of license, Freeman gives Sartre a hipper, more sophisticated, and better-defined political stance than the Second City's seen for some time.

The rest of the company's willing to work through a character rather than mow it down. Barbara Wallace brings just the right glint of fang to her role as a wised-up single woman on the make, just the right flash of talon to that of an ambitious young capitalist trying to package her artist boyfriend. And simply the way she stands in the ranks at chaplain boot camp--tight yet lumpish, intense yet stolid--speaks volumes about the Lutheran grunt she plays.

Bonnie Hunt's characterizations have a gentler surface: more often than not, she's somebody's quiet-but-knowing roomie or wife. But more often than not, too, there's a sharper, meaner, more sarcastic undertone to her good sports--a slight skew that makes them piquant and funny.

It's an approach Rick Hall could stand to emulate. Hall's depths are as gentle as his surface. He's gentle all the way through. And it limits him. Lacking the killer instinct, he falls flat, at one point, trying to impersonate a rich young asshole of a doctor; and again at another point, trying to draw laughs as a New Age twit. Still, farm boy that he is, Hall contributes a surprisingly rich portrait of a stiff-necked old hick to the show's most peculiar sketch--a Pirandellian little thing about a young artist who finds a new way of dealing with perspective.

There's something a little gentler about the show as a whole, actually. Gentler, and quieter. Which isn't to say less amusing--or even less noisy. Just a little less anxious, maybe. Less crazy. Less committed to wackiness as a principle, and more to actorly values of interaction and character. Like I say, the John Belushi Hot Dog Era appears to be over.

And what's replaced it seems somehow more authentic. Steve Assad's got a great bit where he plays Ulysses as a kind of Tom Waitsian jive cat, telling the story of the Odyssey in a cool jazz rap. Squinty-eyed, gravel-voiced, rubber-legged, and jokey, full of that sodden dignity a man gets just by sliding through to a certain age in spite of what he's been smoking, Assad's hilarious Ulysses reminds me of something out of the fabled early days of the Second City or its predecessor, the Compass. And since I wasn't around for those early days, that's saying quite a bit.

There's a special quietness to the Gare Saint Lazare Players, too. They perform their shows in a tiny, homey space on Monday nights, with practically none of the technological appurtenances you'd expect to find in even the barest of the bare-bones storefront theaters.

And the shows themselves: odd, small, uncommercial scripts tending toward a sort of somber whimsicality that are served up in a conscientiously homemade style. It's characteristic of the Players that their most successful play so far wasn't meant to be a play at all, but an afterword to a play--Wallace Shawn's "Appendix to Aunt Dan & Lemon."

The current show is characteristic, too. A double bill consisting of John Guare's one act, In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes, and Ken Jenkins's monologue, Rupert's Birthday, it's as odd, uncommercial, somber, whimsical, and homemade as they come.

A little too homemade where Fireworks is concerned. As acted by a wildly uneven cast under Martin Stewart's direction, Guare's potentially devastating look at text and subtext among five friends can't begin to send off sparks. Can't even get lit, really. Despite the usual, fascinatingly inscrutable performance by Bob Kohut, and an amusing debut by Marybeth Schroeder, the production's only entertaining if you see it as a kind of Gare Saint Lazare family theatrical--and then you have to know the family.

Still, it's not all that painful to sit through, and there's a reward on the other side in the form of Karen Vaccaro's performance as Louisa May in Rupert's Birthday.

Jenkins's script is hack work compared to Guare's. The much too easy, much too sentimental tale of how Louisa May came of age during a night of biological emergencies, Rupert's Birthday is just the sort of pat trivia that gives Louisville's Humana Festival--where it premiered--a bad name. But it's also an excellent opportunity for an actress to take a stage and see if she can hold it. Vaccaro can. Her Louisa May is sweet and funny, with a cracked gravity that makes Jenkins's excesses more palatable--and an intimacy that demonstrates the potential power of a theater where they respect the quiet and the homemade.

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

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