‘Do the Right Thing’ on Second City mainstage

Second City performers write their own material and, while it’s not an ironclad rule in an ensemble-driven comedy theater, most monologues and solo spots are self-penned. So when performers reveal themselves as likely breakout talents, true of at least two members of the mostly new mainstage cast, it’s really a combination of two usually distinct skills.

So I’ll wager that Evan Mills, a whopping comic force who describes himself as “ethnically ambiguous to the untrained eye” and who physically comports himself somewhere between a gummy bear, a jack-in-the-box, Peter Sellers and a 149 CTA bus turning a corner with its bendy bit in the middle, came up with the idea for a little call and response number that asks the audience to raise their hands if whatever the singer is saying applies to them.

Mills starts out by getting hands raised from Chicagoans, then visitors. Then he sings, “raise your hand if you think the world is ending,” and hands shoot up like they are on springs, and then he sings “raise your hand if the news is hard to read” and the arms in the air start to make the place look like a rock concert. And not that many people are smiling, either. The moment is cathartic.

I put down my pen Wednesday night and just stared in disbelief for a second at this stunning display of just how rough people are feeling right now and how quickly they’ll express their inner dislocation. All it takes is someone to ask at a comedy show, although that rush of agreement was also a tribute to Mills’ empathetic personality and personal vulnerability. And he marries all that with genuinely physical comedy, which has had serious supply chain problems these last two or three years on Wells Street.

His partner in physical comedy in this show is a comparably formidable talent: Kiley Fitzgerald, who has moved up from cruise ships and other Second City endeavors. Fitzgerald, a nonbinary performer, is at the heart of the best sketch of the night, which takes place, improbably enough, at the intentionally obnoxious chain eatery, “Dick’s Last Resort.”

Two families have brought their kids to be insulted in the traditional fashion and the server, played by Claire McFadden, obliges at first. But then she catches wind that Fitzgerald uses they/them pronouns and all her humor vanishes, replaced by an obsequious and patronizing adoration that basically ruins everyone’s night, given that they all came to be insulted just like everyone else.

Hallelujah, I thought, watching the hilarious sketch, aided by the generous work of performer Andy Bolduc. Long far too nervous in this arena, Second City finally is coming (again) to the realization that satire has to go after cultural power and the left now has plenty of that power, at least in certain institutions and locations. Here you have a performer who manages both to poke fun at themselves and also press for the boring kind of equality and lampoon virtue signaling. At the same time, it’s also a classic family sketch, befitting the times, and I suspect it will land in the Second City book of greatest hits.

If that weren’t enough for one show, Fitzgerald has a dinosaur gynecologist on deck and they (Fitzgerald, not the dino-gyno) also get the last main hurrah of the night, performing another self-deprecating monologue that begins with the collapse of a chair and spirals through personal history, Second City’s history, the broader society’s history and right back, in affirmation, to Fitzgerald. It’s an impressively fast-paced trajectory of a level of thematic complexity I’ve not seen at this place for a decade or so.

Jen Ellison’s cast also reaches out to the audience again, another crucial Second City quality that has been in depressing retreat. Suggestions, thank heavens, come directly from the audience, not via a censor/moderator. The customers are respected, invited into the show and they responded in kind (the performance I reviewed was almost all regular folks). Once performers are self-deprecating, as is the case here with the likes of the whip-smart E.J. Cameron, the audience easily takes that cue.

I’d argue the show, which also features Julia Morales, lacks local content, but that flows from my long-standing view that part of this theater’s unique job is to let its audience know that Chicago laughs at itself. It’s not an especially newsy revue, either, with many targets left untouched. But despite the surfeit of material about the performers’ own identities, this cast understands how to make themselves ciphers for the audience, the only way identity-driven comedy ever works. The show is also courageous, aware of those who came before and, well, both kind and nonjudgmental.

The reward could be heard, more loudly than in a long time. If you’ve been away for a while, this is a good moment to return.

Review: “Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not” (4 stars)

When: Open run

Where: Second City, 1616 N. Wells St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $29-$87 at 312-337-3992 or secondcity.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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