Patience a virtue of ‘Great Altercations,’ a Second City show that lets the comedy breathe
‘SNL’ alum Jerry Minor directs a satisfying mix of the long, the short, the profound and the silly.
There’s a hug midway through “Great Altercations” that happens and then keeps going. The two women hold their embrace for 10 ... 15 ... maybe 20 seconds. It’s not a joke and the audience knows it, staying silent until one of the huggers re-emerges with a gentle punchline.
It’s the culmination of a bit that starts funny, as a mom tells a favorite family story with a little bit of racism and her daughter (Claudia Martinez) calls her on it. The mom’s indignant but measured reaction is written deftly and acted with impact by Laurel Krabacher, and the scene slides gracefully into poignancy.
When: Open run
Where: Second City e.t.c., 230 W. North Ave.
Run time: 2 hours, plus a 15-minute intermission
Emotional pauses like this are seldom seen at Second City anymore, after a decade or more of acceleration to satisfy shorter attention spans. When a show comes at you hard, flinging rapid-fire jokes amid a bombardment of EDM beats, it can be exhilarating. The new revue on the e.t.c. stage is calmer, a throwback to Second City pacing that varies and allows chances to breathe.
The reset to another era is spearheaded by a director dating back to another era: Jerry Minor, who did three e.t.c. shows in the ’90s, followed by a TV career that included a season on “Saturday Night Live.” He’s put together a satisfying mix of the long, the short, the profound, the silly and even a wordless dance number.
As the extended mother-daughter scene suggests, there’s a theme of communication breakdowns in “Great Altercations,” which opens with the cast bickering about such trivialities as toilet paper placement and onboard shoe requirements (and introducing one another along the way).
Another heavy parental moment comes when a visitor (Jordan Savusa) confronts the son (Mark Campbell) of a World War II soldier who stole his father’s cherished whip in Samoa. It clearly carries personal weight for Savusa, who has touched on his Samoan heritage in past shows.
Gifted as they are with grounded work, this bunch is just as capable of delivering well-crafted comedy that’s deliriously bonkers. Witness the weird flier (Campbell, in his high-strung Sean Hayes mode) raging about the stranger who won’t give him gum, or the basketball that rises and falls in sync with Bitcoin’s value, or the hospital crew apparently possessed by Barenaked Ladies.
Campbell also sings a funny country ditty about going west — to Naperville, Wheaton, Aurora and other suburbs where many audience members are about to drive home. It’s the land of people “too afraid to travel south of the Bean.”
As usual, a few drink sippers in the front row are commandeered to provide material for the cast’s sure-handed improv. One becomes the subject of vignettes strung together by music director Tilliski Ramey’s lyrical narration. Another gets “pulled over” for Driving While White by payback-minded cops of color (Terrence Carey and Martinez), who interrogate him about Patagonia and “Friends.”
Two more are tapped for relationship details by a counselor (Krabacher), hilariously sashaying around showing off her “most improved couple” (Campbell and Alex Bellisle, bending over every which way to flaunt their compatibility).
Krabacher, Campbell, Bellisle and Savusa have done time at e.t.c. or mainstage before, and this show spotlights their ever-improving chops. There are two newcomers: adept utility player Carey, who shines as a tomato-can boxer imparting advice to his son, and Martinez, who gives off a brash Cheri Oteri vibe.
Martinez has a star turn as a well-connected, Spanish-speaking dad capable of charming forgiveness out of anyone. And when she plays a toddler unlulled by the lullabies of her father (Savusa), her face finds about 100 ways to arc through the sleepy-to-sprightly cycle.
Along with their feel-good tone, “Great Altercations” and its mainstage counterpart around the corner, “Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not,” share a tame treatment of politics. This is not a golden era for stinging commentary at Second City. But the e.t.c. show is a fulfilling experience, a chance to enjoy a cast skilled at generating a deeply felt response, whether it’s a lump in the throat or a guffaw from the gut.