The Second City is in high drive at the moment. On the heels of its recent immensely successful collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, it has devised an exceptionally fine new mainstage revue, “Panic on Cloud 9,” easily its best show in a long time.
Tapping into a long list of elements in contemporary life that can easily trigger a continual case of high anxiety, “Panic” embraces subjects ranging from terrorism, Ebola and the loss of privacy in “the cloud” (and elsewhere), to the pluses and minuses of single and/or married life, the chaos of ever-expanding sexual identity possibilities, the creepiness of child abuse and the fear of parenting.
And, under the highly polished direction of Ryan Bernier, the wonderfully varied ensemble of six (Chelsea Devantez, John Hartman, Paul Jurewicz, Daniel Strauss, Christine Tawfik and Emily Walker) not only finesses a series of musically infused comical/satirical sketches, but also moves confidently through several dramatic scenes that fearlessly sidestep a punchy punchline.
‘PANIC ON CLOUD 9’
When: Open run
Where: The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells
Info: (312) 337-3992; www.Second City.com
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
It all begins on a Greyhound bus where the personalities of the passengers, and their quietly wacky driver (the peerless, deadpan, highly motorized Hartman) are quickly defined. Walker cradles five babies in her arm and explains that her low-paying job provided no coverage for birth control. Strauss, an obnoxious executive type who was supposed to be flying, finds himself on the bus after his plane was canceled. Devantez is gorging on chips and talking about Weight Watchers. Tawfik confesses to a gambling problem. And Jurewicz tells us he is on a mission to thank Aretha Franklin for boosting his confidence.
An inflight scene finds Tawfik, the small, willowy beauty making her mainstage debut, jammed into her seat beside the sweet but beefy Jurewicz (“I wouldn’t want to sit next to me, either” he admits). They cautiously begin to warm to each other until a delay on the tarmac prompts Tawfik to call the driver waiting to pick her up on the other end, and the actress (who was born in Egypt) launches into fluent Arabic. Jurewicz gets very nervous.
A sketch about Batman (Hartman) and Robin (Devantez), suggests that even superheroes feel lost and ill-equipped these days, especially given the gun violence. A confrontation between a school guidance counselor (Strauss) and a deaf student (Hartman) moves from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Sexual insecurity is a major focus, of course. Three Russian women gather to talk about the pros and cons of marriage, the eerie physicality of Vladimir Putin and (in a very funny bit of scatology) the invasion of Ukraine. A slumber party for the full cast explores the ever-expanding number of gender labels now in use, with the refrain, “It’s 2014,” suggesting that anything is acceptable now. And in a sketch about two women working on an advertising campaign for tampons, they take their pitch to the outer limit, working from the notion that menstrual periods are still the great unmentionables, and both having one (or missing one) can be be equally panic-inducing.
When two women set to sea on paddle-boards during a vacation in Hawaii, they fear that classic sea creature of terror, the shark (by way of a wildly balletic turn by Hartman), is rearing its goofy head. The anxieties of childbirth is the occasion for a zany musical number that confuses the Lamaze technique for a popular mega-musical whose title I will not divulge here. (Jacob Shuda’s savvy musical direction is in evidence throughout the show.)
In one of the two big dramatic scenes, Walker visits her husband (Jurewicz) in the hospital. He has been left in a semi-vegetative state after a car accident, and while a recounting of the earlier years of the couple’s marriage suggests it was far from ideal, there is a real sense of loss here, and no effort to give it a punchy “out.”
The very best scene of all is the one between Hartman and Jurewicz as two cowboys who engage in existential ruminations that would put Jean-Paul Sartre to shame. Staring out into the void they imagine alternative lives — as “a fancy lady,” “a 63-year-old Chinese man” and “a shy architect.” At once wacky and inspired, the actors stare off into space with a blend of dreaminess, despair and low-grade panic that are almost beyond description but easily propel you onto “Cloud 9.”