What’s radical about “Together at Last,” the first Second City mainstage revue in almost two years, is that it’s not all that radical.
After all, this is a show emerging from chaos. It’s been one round of upheaval after another at the old Wells Street institution — a revolt over institutional racism, a longtime owner out, a new owner in. Not to mention the pandemic that shut down Second City’s theaters and limited it to the Internet for more than a year.
Now the company comes back with a show of new material, shaped over the last few months, and it’s far from a game-changer. Aside from a few tweaks, it’s typical 21st century Second City: sketches and blackouts performed with high energy, frenetic pacing and flashy lighting. And the cast arrives almost intact from “Do You Believe in Madness?,” the 2019-20 show cut short by COVID-19.
“Madness,” unfortunately, was a mess. And while this show also falls short of Second City standards, the ensemble has become more deft and the material a little stronger.
Working with a new director — Anneliese Toft, transferred from the e.t.c. stage — the actors open the revue with friendly waves and then a blunt declaration that “we’re f- - - ed!” (It’s the first of many naughty words in a show with a serious swearing problem. Artful cussing has been a Second City staple ever since Del Close dropped the f-word the day after the JFK assassination, but in this show the profanity is seldom there to enhance the joke. It’s meant to be the joke. And the joke gets old.)
While improv-heavy, “Together” does settle into a few scripted songs and scenes. One clever number teaches the uninformed how to navigate a current-events discussion (you can always cite the Atlantic because “nobody reads the Atlantic”), and Sarah Dell’Amico and Evan Mills do a graceful song-and-dance as a couple thrilled to be divorcing. Dell’Amico also teams up effectively with Mary Catherine Curren to play estranged Florida friends whose conflicts are dredged up in amusing, well-written detail.
The night’s big political set piece is an extended take on Joe Biden by Adam Schreck, who oddly portrays the famously deliberative president as a fast talker with a George W. Bush twang. Less than trenchant, the sketch goes after easy targets like Marjorie Taylor Greene and the fly on Mike Pence’s head.
But most bits hinge on the suggestions that audience members text (to screens next to the stage) or shout when prompted. In a step up from the dreary Charades and Freeze Tag of “Madness,” these segments are innovative, if borderline bizarre: Cuddly Jordan Savusa roars as a minotaur sensitive to one-liners about a suggested topic, or floating plane-crash survivors look to audience ideas to understand how they’re mystically bonded.
Watching nimble comic minds instantly spin gold from suggestions is one of the great thrills of Second City. But on opening night, the “Madness” actors often lacked command of the improv, sputtering uncertain responses or entertaining each other (if not us) with their incoherence.
In a bawdy, overlong improv about pandemic frustration, the three women play party girls leaving lockdown and desperate for action. Each questions a guy in the audience and turns his answers into sex talk, writhing as they proposition him with dumb schoolyard innuendo. Hooray for celebrating female sexuality, boo for cheap humor.
The newcomer to the cast, Mills, is an intriguing presence who uses his big eyes and lithe moves to play a stalker whose identity is a punchline. Also making an impression is Asia Martin, a Black woman who builds goodwill throughout the show with her effervescent charms, then exploits it with a cheery demand for money from guilt-ridden white people (complete with her Venmo ID on the screens).
The show ends in a sing-along of an upbeat ditty about making the most of today. It seems fitting for a kinder, more inclusive Second City, where audience members now are told individually, face to masked face, before the show that bigoted suggestions aren’t welcome. That’s a goal that’s noble, and surely can coexist with being smarter and funnier.