Second City Reunion (1993)

by Jeffrey Sweet

The somewhat awkward title, Early Second City Players Reunion, may have led some of those entering the Door Community Auditorium to believe that they were in for an evening of classic scenes from Chicago's pioneering satiric theatre. But, aside from Severn Darden playing a German professor giving nonsensical and convoluted answers to questions on a subject of the audience's choice (something he has been doing brilliantly for nearly 40 years), the bulk of the two performances was devoted to theatre games played under the supervision of Second City's founding director, Paul Sills.

Not that the Wisconsin audience was disappointed. Far from it. How often do you get a chance to see the likes of Paul Sand, Valerie Harper and Avery Schreiber brighten a stage entirely by their theatrical wits? Both nights the company's efforts were greeted with standing ovations.

Among those standing, albeit with mixed feelings, was Del Close. Del himself had performed at Second City in the early days and had subsequently graduated to directing such performers as Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Andrea Martin in dozens of editions of the revue in both the home theatre in Chicago and the Toronto extension. A few days before, Barbara Harris (who graduated from the first Second City company to star on Broadway and in movies) had phoned Close to tell him that she intended to drive up from Chicago to watch their friends play. Did he wish to join her? Since he hadn't been invited to participate, Close said he would pass.

But when the day arrived, Harris wasn't surprised to find him sharing the car with her.

In the car, Close remembered that he, Mina Kolb, Avery Schreiber, Richard Schaal and Bill Alton had been performing in London when the Cuban missile crisis broke. One of the regular bits in the show involved the audience asking a question that cued Avery, playing an anthropomorphic computer, to go into an improvised mechanical dance reflecting the subject. At the climax, Schreiber would offer a print-out (that is to say, he would stick out his tongue), Close would mime tearing it off and then he would "read" an answer. (As he said in Something Wonderful Right Away, one night "a large gentleman stood up very grandly and asked, `Would you tell me, sirs, the difference between Cuba and Suez?' I snapped my fingers, which meant an immediate answer from the machine, and said, `The difference, gentlemen, is that we're strong enough to bring it off.' This got us a standing ovation -- for sheer balls, I suppose.")

The strain of those days (nothing like performing satiric comedy in the shadow of a possible world war) and the friction caused by the five of them sharing digs in London led them to vent their irritation by inventing a murder game. The rules were simple: anybody playing the game could point a finger at any other player anywhere and go "bang," and the other had to immediately die in as flamboyant a way as possible. (Legend has it that Close once fell down eight flights of steps after being shot. Not so, says he, "It was only five.") Dying was a matter of honor, even if you were shot in public. Especially if you were shot in public. If you were shot and didn't fall, you were out of the game. (The head of the BBC was once startled when his polite party conversation with Bill Alton was interrupted by Alton enacting dramatic death throes at his feet.) There were a few restrictions: you could not be shot while you were at work, nor when carrying a camera, a musical instrument or boiling water.

Paul Sills never thought much of the game. "People should hug not shoot," he insisted. Close thought Sills didn't get it. The point was you could only shoot people you loved. In any case, enthusiasm for the game understandably waned in the wake of the political assassinations of the Sixties.

Arriving at the theatre for the July 23rd performance, Close and Harris found that a very impressive company indeed had made their way to Door County. (Why Door County? Every summer, Sills runs workshops in improvisation on his farm there. The performances were organized to support student scholarships.) In addition to Harper, Darden, Sand and Schreiber, the players included two of Del's London buddies -- Mina Kolb and Richard Schaal -- as well as such veterans of other Sills companies as Lewis Arquette, Hamilton Camp, Garry Goodrow, Rachel Keene and jazz pianist Fred Kaz.

After the players were introduced, Sills, sitting off to the side, selected the games and the players. Many of the games would be familiar to anybody who has taken a class in improvisation, coming as they do straight out of the pages of Improvisation for the Theatre, the landmark book by Sills's mother, Viola Spolin. First, the entire company played a round robin series of "Gibberish," in which a player sits between two other players, who are gesturing and speaking nonsense sounds, and tries to come up with likely and funny translations of their communications. Then came "Who Am I?," in which someone has to figure out who he/she is from the way the others relate to him/her. (It didn't take Valerie Harper long to realize that she was Princess Di.)

This was followed by other familiar structures: "Dubbing," in which two actors gesture and mouth silently while two others supply the words -- the object being to try to achieve as close an integration as possible; "Story-Story," in which the company jointly composes a tale, beginning with one word from each person, then escalating to phrases and paragraphs and finally the physicalization of the action; and "Transformation," which requires a pair of actors to do a series of disparate short scenes blossoming out of each other, cued by what is suggested by each other's movements. The first act climaxed with Paul Sand reprising the simple-minded owner of a magic goose from Paul Sills's Story Theatre, one of the roles that earned him a Tony Award in 1971.

Towards the end of the evening, the company created poems based on a first line suggested by the audience, "It was cherry picking time." Schreiber spelled his poem out letter by letter, physicalizing each word distinctively. When he got to the "P" in "cherry pit," he plucked it out of the air, popped it into his mouth and spat out the kernel.

After the performance, Close, more interested in complex forms of improvisation, expressed his opinion that the games were too limiting. Watching a company of this calibre doing an evening of them was the equivalent of putting ballet dancers on crutches. Still, he wished to join his friends on the second night. So he suggested to Sills that he and Schreiber reprise the computer routine. Sills considered the idea but decided that, since the performance was built around the games, putting in a routine wouldn't be consistent with the rest of the show. Close was disappointed. He had hoped to reinvoke his kinship with the gang by sharing a little bit of the stage with them.

One could understand Close's impatience with the simplicity of the forms being presented, but the purpose of the gathering was not to clear new theatrical fields but to provide the company with a structure to play together.

And on the second night they continued to do so, with joy and enthusiasm. Questioned by Goodrow, Darden played a botanist revealing that a certain pesticide grows hair on eggplants. A bald Goodrow requested more information. During her poem, based on the first line, "It was a dark and stormy night," Harper flew into an exuberant dance of the unruly weather that brought cheers from the audience (reminding one that she had begun her career as a dancer). And Schaal and Schreiber did a marvelous series of transformations, wordlessly metamorphosing from a monkey and organ grinder to a marionette and puppeteer, then to a piano student and his teacher. When Schreiber slammed the piano lid down on the student's hands, Schaal raised it again and delicately replaced the severed fingers.

After the second show, the gang repaired to a nearby restaurant, ordering pizzas and swapping stories. Harper nodded to where Sand and Harris stood side by side in amber light, leaning against pool cues. "Don't they look just like out of one of the old black-and-white photos at Second City?" And for a second it was again 1960 when the two were the kids of the company.

Not far away, Dick Schaal looked up from his beer to see Close pointing his finger at him. Close fired. Schaal hurled himself out of his chair and onto the floor. Close smiled.