The Second City’s ‘Happily Ever Laughter’ at The Barns at Wolf Trap

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A group of smart, funny and nice-seeming comedians from the famous Second City improv group of Chicago entertained about 600 appreciative people at the Barns at Wolf Trap last night.

Since its founding in 1959, The Second City‘s specialty has been improvisational comedy sketches based on audience input and simple scenarios. In classic improv style they pulled someone out of the front row, asked him a few simple questions and expertly wove a story around his answers. Who knows, one night you’re a local pharmacist and the next night you could be hosting the Late Show.

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Yes indeed, one Second City alum is Stephen Colbert, who on April 10th was named to replace David Letterman on CBS’s popular comedy hour. Bill Murray, Tina, Fey, and Chris Farley also got their start in Second City and went on to Saturday Night Live (SNL) and Hollywood. Others include John Candy, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Catherine O’Hara, Steve Carell and Jason Sudeikis.

In what amounted to an SNL doubleheader, Friday’s ensemble, directed by Piero Procaccini, delivered more than a twenty well-written sketches, some only two lines long. They used a variety of improvisation techniques such as word associations, changing the decade and using the last line of the previous sketch as the first line of the next. Called acting games, these staples are attributed to Paul Sills (1927-2008), a Second City founder who according to his New York Times obituary once said, “Theater is concerned with reality. Reality is shared. And reality of the moment can occur only with spontaneity.”

Adam Schreck.
Adam Schreck.

The first scenario took place on the wedding day of a young man, played by the versatile Adam Schreck of Pittsburgh, who gets cold feet. His dad, played by the appealing Nick Rees, encourages him to tie the knot. “A wife’s brain is like a satellite brain. It’s like storage. Where are my car keys? What is my cousin’s name? How much can I drink before I become a jerk?” Rees, who has a degree in creative writing, has been touring with Second City since 2010 and served as emcee for the evening.

The quirky Lisa Barber and the memorable Rachel LaForce took a chance in portraying a pair of old ladies in a nursing home since they can’t be older than 30 and the audience was full of women over 50. But their depiction was sensitive and nuanced. Barber, who has distinctive mannerisms, relinquished her clutch on a deck of cards to reach out a comforting hand and pat her neighbor’s arm when she grew disoriented.

LaForce’s attention wandered visibly and she kept asking politely, “What are you doing for Christmas?”

Said Barber, “It’s Easter, dear.” The material was timely and they sprinkled it with the requisite jabs at politics and religion. Spoiler alert: if you’re going tonight, don’t read the next sentence.

Christine Tawfik.
Christine Tawfik.

“The days may seem the same to us, but trust me, they were very different types of days for Jesus,” intoned Barber, a graduate of the Second City conservatory and writing program. LaForce is an actor, voice actor, comedian and writer who hails from Atlanta.

Christine Tawfik of Colorado played a psychic who sensed various issues emanating from the audience. Her smart comebacks got a lot of laughs. She and Rees teamed up for a word-association sketch that called for some quick thinking when the audience, asked for a current-events topic, shouted “Ukraine.”

There is a degree of transference in improv in which one finds oneself rooting for the actor, rather than being tempted to jeer at a bad joke by a stand-up comedian. Even if you’re just spectating, it is a highly participatory, engaging experience during which one finds oneself trying to think along the same lines as the actor.

Paul Jurewicz.
Paul Jurewicz.

Jurewicz played a sports fan who is annoyed by loud hecklers in the row behind him. His liquid facial expressions and unselfconscious physical humor recall those of another Second City and SNL alum, Dan Akroyd.

Schreck nailed several walk-ons in which he sang and danced spoofs of period songs from the 1910s, 1980s and today in an enjoyable sketch by the whole ensemble that portrayed family life in different decades.

They also sang a funny song about the cuteness craze, gushing about puppies and baby owls while explaining the concept of pedomorphism or juvenilization: that traits like big eyes make our prefrontal cortex light up and turn us into caretakers. “Join us or die!” they concluded, and, in terms of evolutionary psychobiology, apparently we will die (out) if we don’t.

Music Director Jacob Shuda played the piano with collaborative comedic timing throughout the evening. Stage Manager Jayme O’Hara illumined with great precision everything from brief vignettes to longer sketches with complex blocking.

Second City has comedy training centers in Chicago, Toronto, and Hollywood and four touring companies. They also hold workshops to Improv(e) workplace relations through communication and the ability to think fast.

Running Time:Ttwo hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Second City’s Happily Ever Laughter, played on April 18th and 19, 2014 as did an improvisation workshop Saturday called “What’s My Line” at the Barns of Wolf Trap-1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future events at Wolf Trap visit their calendar of performances and events.