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STAGE REVIEW : Second City Sags a Bit Under ‘Pier Pressure’

The least we can expect out of Second City is for it to be funny. The group’s second show at its new Santa Monica outpost, “Santa Monica Pier Pressure,” meets that standard. But the writing doesn’t live up to the expectations engendered by the Second City name or by this group’s first show.

Only three of the first show’s seven cast members are in “Pier Pressure,” but they’re joined by three newcomers, two of them from other Second City venues.

Richard Kind makes the biggest splash of any of the newcomers. This is almost literally true; Kind is a big guy, with a big mouth that’s perfect for the roles of a telephone screamer who’s talking to his daughter’s suitor, a vengeful Lotto winner, a man who brags to his wife about his affair with a movie star, and an all-knowing waiter who offers silent psychological counseling as a side order.

Ryan Stiles, whose long neck is a natural comic resource, sometimes adds especially beady eyes that serve him well in a number of situations. Making her Second City debut, Diane Stilwell moves easily between self-effacing and self-absorbed roles.

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Among those who remain from the first show, Robin Duke gets the showiest moments. As a snooty boutique clerk, she contorts her body for maximum comic results. Dana Anderson and Chris Barnes also bounce skillfully through a variety of characterizations.

It’s the material that isn’t particularly ambitious.

This group’s first show examined AIDS and homelessness in sketches that ventured beyond the easy laugh. It included a relatively daring song about gang warfare; in this show, the opening bit mentions the Crips and the Bloods but turns out to be about something entirely different--and more innocuous.

“Pier Pressure” does address a few topical issues--the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, Mikhail Gorbachev’s appeal to Americans, and the continuing Japanization of America (a musical number that could use a bit more rehearsal)--but not in ways that are particularly enterprising or probing.

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The opening night performance included very little improvisation, and the two stabs in that direction seemed tentative. In fact, one sketch--an amusing parody of performance art--was improvisatory in name only; the audience suggestions didn’t have much to do with the effects of the piece.

That piece, however, did include such excellent work from musical director Fred Kaz and the uncredited lighting designer that one wonders why so many Second City sketches have such limited production values. The first act is particularly bereft of visual design; when the audience finally sees a streak of visual ingenuity in a campground sketch in the second act, it’s a relief.

“Pier Pressure” is enjoyable, but it doesn’t lift Second City above the competition (most notably, the Groundlings) in the manner you would expect from a full-time Equity-contract company with the pedigree that Second City has. Peter Torokvei is the director.

At 214 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and 10:30 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $12.95-$13.95; (213) 669-1504.

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