Like the rest of the world, Second City has been through its share of upheavals in the past two years. Longtime owner, CEO, and executive producer Andrew Alexander stepped down in June 2020 in the wake of increasing public allegations about institutional racism at the comedy powerhouse. Anthony LeBlanc stepped in as interim executive director, followed by Jon Carr, a veteran of theater and improv comedy in Atlanta, who came on board in December 2020. Then Carr stepped down earlier this year. Meantime, the company itself was bought by a private equity firm, and the instructors at the Second City Training Center in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto have all been fighting for union representation.
And that’s not taking into account everything happening outside Second City’s doors: a pandemic, a failed domestic insurrection, the Russian war on Ukraine, and courts and legislatures across the U.S. seemingly bent on rolling us right back to the 1850s.
Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not
Open run: Tue-Thu 8 PM, Fri-Sat 7 and 10 PM, Sun 7 PM; Second City mainstage, 1616 N. Wells, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $33-$114.
What’s remarkable about Second City’s latest mainstage offering, Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not, is that it ignores almost all of that. And I gotta say, I think that’s a good thing. We know things are terrible. Does anyone really need to pay Second City prices to hear the same commentary we can find dished out for free on late-night television (or in the current January 6 hearings)?
But that’s not to say that the 110th revue, directed by Jen Ellison in her mainstage debut, is lacking in politics. By virtue of the diversity of the cast and the way their intersecting identities are dissected, sent up, and ultimately celebrated, this show tells us that the very act of unapologetically being who you are is a big political statement. And one that is absolutely essential to the survival of the species.
And as the title tells us, adjusting to each other with grace is also a political act. We’re going to fuck up. The big question is if we’re willing to listen and learn—which, as the “yes, and” gurus have been telling us for a minute, is one of the reasons improv can change your life.
In 2018’s Algorithm Nation or the Static Quo, Second City’s 107th revue, the company leaned hard into darkness with scenes involving gunshots and an over-the-top parody of a female Trump supporter. But as Brianna Wellen noted in her Reader review (where she quoted former Second City cast member Tawny Newsome’s observation that women were required to wear dresses onstage as recently as 2012), “when there are so many other progressive and innovative shows happening in the city, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see where a theater that wanted to keep women in dresses fits in.”
In Do the Right Thing, the cast seemingly wears whatever the hell they want. And they’re unafraid of crafting vignettes that delve right into the heart of identity.
So for example, we have a brilliant scene set at Dick’s Last Resort, where Claire McFadden’s waitron hands out obscene nicknames at a birthday party for 12-year-olds. But when informed that one of the guests, played by nonbinary actor Kiley Fitzgerald, uses they/them pronouns, McFadden’s character falls apart in a spectacularly cringeworthy display of liberal self-recrimination. When she tries to hand Fitzgerald’s character a name tag reading “HERO,” Fitzgerald tries to explain that they don’t want to be called a hero; they just want to live their life enjoying the same things everyone else gets. Including name tags reading “BIG SLUT.”
In an audience participation call-and-response musical segment, Evan Mills (the sole returning mainstage performer from previous revues, and the co-creator/co-director of Queer Eye: The Musical Parodynow running at Second City’s UP Comedy Club) asks us to raise our hand if we’re from various states, if we’re single, etc. (He also acknowledges the zeitgeist with “Raise your hand if the news is hard to read,” and “Raise your hand if you think the world is ending.”) Finally he whittles the demographics down to “Raise your hand if you’re from Michigan, half Filipino, queer with a gay dad, and left-handed. [Pause.] Yeah, I thought I might lose some of you on that one.”
But in addition to the performers embracing their individuality, there is a theme of duality running through the show as well, shored up by the title’s implication that we’re all a combination of our best impulses and our worst. Literal twins are onstage in a sketch where McFadden as an ob-gyn shrinks herself down, a la the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage, and is projected into the uterus of expectant mom Julia Morales, just to make sure the babies are chill and relaxed. (Fitzgerald also plays an ob-gyn in a later sketch—but they’re a dinosaur and their tiny arms just aren’t ideal for manipulating a speculum.)
Sometimes that duality comes out in observational humor on race. Morales and E.J. Cameron are the proprietors of “Blackbuster”—a retro video rental store whose motto is “For every white movie, there’s a Black movie as good or better!” So if you want The Wizard of Oz, you get The Wiz. If you want Edward Scissorhands, you get Barbershop. If you want Forrest Gump, you get . . . Radio (though Cameron has to blow the dust off that one). Morales and Cameron are also standouts in an office sketch where they have to code-switch with their white boss, played by Andy Bolduc with a hearty air of gormless bonhomie. (Product shout-outs to LaCroix—pamplemousse flavor, especially—and Patagonia apparently are the lingua franca for talking to white people.)
Ellison, her cast, and musical director Jeff Bouthiette have built a show that isn’t trying to impress us with faux-edginess. Instead, it’s a thoughtful and often sweet showcase for actors who exhibit a great combination of complementary skills, and who work together with seemingly seamless generosity. A late-night car scene between longtime friends McFadden and Bolduc, where they both finally start coming clean about their mutual attraction while role-playing cockney chauffeur and upper-class Brit boss, is a lovely mini-play. A first-act closing scene pays homage to high school detention, a la The Breakfast Club, but with a surprising and poignant reveal.
It’s also hard to ignore the physical comedy chops of this cast, especially Mills, whose rubbery physique and mobile facial expressions remind me of a silent-film comedian, and Fitzgerald, who, in addition to their hilarious dinosaur doctor, turns a disquisition on fatphobia triggered by their “breaking” a chair into an increasingly chaotic and hilarious aria of grievances while wriggling all over the stage.
Speaking of wriggling: In a second-act musical number, McFadden takes on the persona of a French chanteuse, crooning a song about how good life can be. Soon we find out that she’s an earthworm. And she’s cut in half when rain sweeps her onto the sidewalk. But duality again saves the day; Mills’s earthworm finds and recombines with her, and life goes on. If earthworms can patch things up and keep going in the face of a storm, surely we can, too.