Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Galavanting across the stage with affected swagger and flaunting a pair of airbrushed spandex pants, a faux fur vest and a Six Flags fanny pack, an American Apparel staffer declares, “I’m exactly where I want to be at 35.” The satirical knives dig deep into the gullets of hipsters in what is by far the funniest scene from the Second City e.t.c.’s latest revue.
Of course, these knives are about as sharp as the beak on a rubber chicken, and the crew wielding them plays the scene like the goofballs they actually are.
“A Clown Car Named Desire” is a relentlessly silly revue that packs a million jokes tightly into its human cannonball and throws them at the audience in the form of outlandish sight gags, numerous callbacks and interactive improvisations wrapped in a circus performer’s rainbow-hued dream. It’s classic Second City played for the largest laughs possible and done (almost) exactly right.
Take the aforementioned about hipsters. Aiming at the cultural zeitgeist is exactly what the Second City does best. I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to watch the ensembles of the 60s satirize the emergence of hippies or the rise of yuppies in the early 80s. Even though the scene could’ve (and perhaps should’ve) been written several years ago, it still mines a culturally relevant moment as hipster affectations (unicycles, handlebar mustaches, etc.) spiral increasingly into self-parody.
In one timely scene from act one, a gay teen comes to pick up his prom date and is greeted at the door by his date’s vaguely red state older brother whose world is clearly thrown off kilter. There’s a wonderful universality at work in this scene as each guy discovers he’s not that different than the other. In another scene, a tomboy (played to perfection by newcomer Punam Patel) struggles with her feelings for her best guy friend who is growing up and leaving her behind. Her vulnerability here is wonderful.
Tender scenes like these are the exceptions, though. Mostly, it feels like the cast is pranking the audience with scene work that constantly devolves into the silly and absurd. Take newcomer Brooke Breit as a mom returning to the workplace after maternity leave (Breit recently gave birth herself). What could be a scene about workplace relationships turns into an outrageous sight gag that is pure circus antics. Ditto a vaudevillian number that loops in audience participation and a surreal dream-like sequence set in a laundromat. The show is full of wonderful surprises.
But the performance isn't perfect. One flat scene tries to capture MTV’s new reality phenomenon, Catfish, but is steeped in dated references to Abercrombie and Fitch, The Secret, and Bennigan’s. The performers are on autopilot in that one. Another fail is the lack of scene work featuring only the women ensemble members. “Clown Car” is unusual in that Breit, Patel and Carisa Barreca are first-timers to a Second City resident stage. Why not put Barreca’s vocal prowess, Patel’s whip-smart improv instincts, and Breit’s stellar physicality to use—sans the fellas?
Not that the gents don’t deserve to be commended; they’re working their rear ends off here. In particular, watch the way they boldly inhabit and mine their bodies for laughs. There's Witaske as a fur-chested Burt Reynolds (in an improvised scene), Kosinski playing his Willis Tower-like lank to exaggerated effect, and Lehrer doing the exact opposite with his short stature. All three are ready for the Mainstage.
In writing about the Second City e.t.c.’s 36th revue, June of 2012’s “We’re All in This Room Together,” I commented that the title was overly serious for such a breezy, slaphappy summer revue. I now realize the show’s title is pointing to what happens when you put a talented ensemble together in a room with a willing audience—magic. It happens again in “A Clown Car Named Desire.” Bring a pair of oversized floppy shoes and enjoy.
'A Clown Car Named Desire' is now playing. For tickets and details, see The Second City.