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STAGE REVIEW : Second City Storms West

Times Theater Writer

Ring out the old, ring in the new. Chicago’s Second City has blown into town and taken over the Mayfair in Santa Monica--and the joint is jumping.

It will break some hearts to see the former Victorian red and gold of the old Mayfair Music Hall lobby conformed into yet another of those sleek, neutered, high-tech spaces with the exposed ducts and pipes that seem to be the requisite for hip. It’s all cabaret seating inside. Gone is the grand old semicircular rococo lobby bar, replaced by . . . just a bar.

But gone, too, is the erratic programming. If the content on stage was unpredictable at the Mayfair and New Mayfair (as it was called when it was less new), the streamlining outside heralds the streamlining inside.

The 30-year-old improv comedy troupe from the Windy City has opened a local franchise. It’s been a steady hatchery for top comedy talent, spawning such names as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, the Belushi brothers and John Candy among dozens--literally--of familiar alums. Nor did Second City wait for the reviews to be in to sign a 10-year lease. The company is here to stay and we’re the beneficiaries.

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“For a Good Time Call . . . 451-0621" is a shrewd, smart, savvy series of quick takes dealing with everything from malpractice insurance and hyperkinetic Space-Age kids to revisionist school teachers, secret male fantasies and a slow-motion Western spoof. You name it, they’ve got it. And if they don’t have it, don’t worry. They’ll create it. On the spot.

There is nothing new about improv and scripted comedy of this type, but these young comedians have pedigrees. They’re direct descendants of the inventors of the genre. Like the work of the San Francisco Committee, the old Credibility Gap or the current Los Angeles Groundlings (and an endless effluvium of young imitators), comedy as a series of fast blackouts is very much in vogue. Not all who are called, though, are necessarily choice. What Second City delivers in Santa Monica is prime stuff.

What makes the difference? Outrage, a keen sensibility and sharp eye for what’s funny. Director Jeff Michalski didn’t invent the sketches without the terrific ensemble of seven who perform them--Dana Anderson, Chris Barnes, Robin Duke, John Hemphill, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake and Jane Morris--but he can be credited for the selection of scenes that comprise the show and for its superswift pace, sandwiching snappy living cartoons between blackouts and longer segments.

The troupe picks up on political satire, one of the most lamented lapses in comedy today. There’s a solo Washington, D.C., rap song and a group song about the deficit (“We’re gonna stick it to the children / Dump it on the kids / Leave it to our heirs / To clean up our affairs / Chips off the H & R Block . . . "), but better still, they deliver a sizzling indictment of homelessness in the form of a fantasy revue, performed against a giant American flag as backdrop. The point is not lost.

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The greatest clue to the group’s sense of social responsibility is the top of the second half. It takes nerve, in the middle of an evening of comedy, to do a series of short sketches, commentaries almost, related to the tragedy of AIDS. These are beautifully done, one scene overlapping into another, with a deepening solemnity.

Yet there were bimbos in Wednesday’s audience who laughed all the way through, as though programmed in their expectations and having no minds of their own, they had to continue to laugh. And no, it was not nervous laughter.

What the members of Second City do requires class as well as skill. This was brilliantly illustrated in a glowing sketch with three people at a bar telling stories, demonstrating the subtle difference a good (or bad) storyteller can make to similar sets of events.

The members of Second City can tell stories and then some.

About that 10-year lease--is there an option to extend?

At 214 Santa Monica Blvd. in Santa Monica, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 and 10:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Indefinitely. Tickets: $12.95-$13.95. (213) 451-0621). P.S. Deli food and drink can be ordered before the show and during the intermission.


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