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Comedy Review:

The Second City’s "EMBRYOS ON ICE! OR FETUS DON’T FAIL ME NOW"

BY LUCIA MAURO

After The Second City – piquant proponents of America’s checks and balances system -- postponed the opening of its 87th revue due to our national tragedy, audiences no doubt wondered if the writers-performers could find anything worthy of satiric criticism. Would their merciless observations, often peppered with tasteless humor, of humanity’s absurd sense of self-absorption suddenly be outmoded or considered sacrilegious in the face of such unspeakable carnage?

These questions weighed on my mind as I attended the surprisingly jam-packed opening of "Embryos on Ice! Or Fetus Don’t Fail Me Now." And although President George W. Bush was not spared some potent ribbing over his dubious tax cut, the witty and agile ensemble managed to avoid disrespectful commentary while delivering perhaps one of The Second City’s most focused, mature and unified revues.

It’s obvious that the troupe’s new approach of collaborative workshops paid off. Clown artist Michael Kennard, Second City artistic associate Mick Napier and veteran Second City director Jeff Richmond joined forces with the fresh, balanced and razor-sharp ensemble – Craig Cackowski, Debra Downing, Nyima Funk, Ed Furman, Martin Garcia, Sue Gillan and David Pompeii – to craft an eclectic showcase of society’s hypocritical tendencies.

The Second City’s strongest suit remains its ability to bring back images or jokes at unexpected times no matter how obscure or unrelated – including one about an unsuspecting moose. So their riffs have a fullness and malleability of purpose that extend beyond the stage.

An opening montage of flashbulb-popping paparazzi puts various figures (including God) in the limelight, then reveals a secret that undermines their efforts to use the media for self-promotion. It’s followed by a sketch on a bungled school shooting by two nerdish girls, which – although it sounds horribly insensitive – is presented with such masterful lunacy that it makes a powerful case for tolerance.

The show takes its title from couples’ newfound ability to genetically engineer their own perfect child – and the subsequent moral issues this process raises. In one of the most poignant scenes, a couple coos over its frozen embryo.

A brilliant dissection of burgers and fries as America’s meat and potatoes – delivered in a marijuana haze – takes on heady philosophical proportions, especially when we consider that fries originated in France. A movie focus group - with a variety of puffed-up, angry and clueless participants – provides a riotous opportunity for the ever-versatile Cackowski to lament with serious self-importance the film’s implausibility – "entirely lacking in plause."

Other ingenious segments include: George Washington describing new coins featuring images for each state (e.g. polygamy for Utah; executions for Texas); a ridiculous team-building retreat for corporate executives (one disgruntled employee shouts, "We’re not lab rats, we’re computer programmers!"); a feisty Irish couple preparing for a liver transplant; an over-imaginative police sketch artist who favors the Cubist style; a zealous waiter who uses graphic sexual analogies to describe how good the food is; and a smokin’ improvised R&B trio (performed by Funk, Gillan and Downing) inspired by the word "pickle."

The entire ensemble is rich in flexibility and boldly defies stereotypes. This fully realized Second City revue symbolizes the best of American comedy – at a time when the U.S. grapples with an incomprehensible vulnerability – but is not afraid to tactfully keep even the flag wavers aware of society’s shortcomings.

"Embryos on Ice! Or Fetus Don’t Fail Me Now" is in an open run at The Second City, 1616 N. Wells (Piper’s Alley). Tickets: $17. Call 312-337-3992 or log onto www.secondcity.com.
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