At this moment when the president already takes regular flayings on late-night TV and the mayor and governor have yet to define themselves, perhaps it’s best that the new Second City e.t.c. show largely avoids the prevailing political figures in favor of personal anxieties, family dynamics and — I’m not kidding — the difference between cats and dogs.
Not that there’s anything wrong with keeping things grounded. The actor-writers here deliver fresh takes and lively depictions of their mostly down-to-earth subjects, characters who may be exaggerated but at least have some connection to the audience’s real world. Take the insomniac (Mark Campbell) kept awake by a headful of worries. While there’s an imaginary game show host ringleading his uncertainties, they’re as familiar as a co-worker recalling your faux pas and a former teacher in a nun’s veil stirring up your guilt.
This is the second e.t.c. creation of director Annaliese Toft, more consistently funny than predecessor “Gaslight District” and perhaps a sign of heightened confidence. All of the cast members are new to e.t.c. except Andrew Knox, a veteran of the two previous shows.
‘Grinning From Fear to Fear’ ★★★ When: Open run Where: Second City e.t.c., 230 W. North Tickets: $21-$58 Info: secondcity.com Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
And seniority has its privileges. The guy’s everywhere in this show, carrying a lopsided number of scenes with splashy, manic characters. He’s the high-volume host of the insomniac game show, a man reassuring his depressed girlfriend, a mutant who looked too closely at the microwave. In his grandest showcase, Knox plays a wild-eyed serial killer explaining to his interrogator (E.J. Cameron) how he targeted only deeply unlikable men, the types who wear suits with sneakers, and who use “summer” as a verb. Somehow he never actually says the word “d-bag.”
He’s also front-and-center as the birthday boy in a surprise-party scene, the night’s audience participation centerpiece. It’s more high-wire than most, trusting the amateurs to play various disruptive newcomers to the man’s life. (Props to the audience guy on opening night who was pimped to repeat the funny thing he’d said the other day, and smoothly let slip, “Ah, you wouldn’t get it.”)
Laurel Krabacher plays the depressed girlfriend, flipping channels as she waits for the mask to finish hydrating her face. After she suggests to her man that maybe a baby would solve their problems, she pauses for mere seconds before barking, “How dare you hesitate!” Later, when Krabacher sings of the glories of Lexapro, she adroitly supplements the melody with her own leisurely tap-dancing.
Fast-paced scenes are the norm right from the get-go, when rapid-fire jabber attempts to breathe excitement (not really successfully) into the old premise of a guy (Campbell) who gets nervous around his girlfriend’s parents. The wiry Campbell cranks up even faster fidgeting as the aforementioned doggie, desperate to befriend the contemptuous new cat in the household (Cameron) who just wants to make new rules and commandeer the couch.
For its one substantial political scene, “Grinning” jumps back in time a bit — something like 230 years. Up against a deadline to finish the Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers hastily brainstorm some amendments (with the audience’s help) and promise themselves they’ll fix the language later, a nightmare scenario for those now who pick apart every word of the First and Second.
The indefatigable Atra Asdou scores best as an Iraqi-American mom watching Little League alongside a Jamaican-American dad (Cameron), yelling at their kids while commiserating about their oh-so-woke choices. Authority figures are the sweet spot for Cameron, from the bossy kitty to the girlfriend’s father to the rapper who dissects the price of meds as the rapper Big Pharma.
Chuck Norment has a sweet moment as a trans adult (like Norment) dropping the bombshell on very supportive Dad (Knox — again!) and an odd turn as a “New Wave chauvinist” who interrupts a man’s wedding proposal to spout unconventional ideas about masculinity. Elsewhere, Norment slides helpfully from one supporting role to another, at times seeming to smirk at the goings-on.
Some of the best writing in “Grinning” arrives in the finale song. Before segueing into Second City’s traditional “we’re all in this together” capper, it’s a bravura, harmonized recitation of common anxieties, lots of them. If you haven’t felt yet that this show has melded with your mind, then you will by then.