Theater Review - The Second City spoofs Atlanta at Alliance Theatre

The Alliance Hertz Stage's comedy revue The Second City: Too Busy to Hate ... Too Hard to Commute begins with a young couple driving South for a vacation in Atlanta. Before they cross inside the I-285 Perimeter, they remark on the pleasant driving conditions and anticipate their visit: "I want to enjoy the city the way the natives do – on foot!"

Maybe you can see where this is going. Inevitably, the tourists hit horrifying midafternoon gridlock in a musical number with "Too busy to hate/too hard to commute" as the refrain. The Second City's Atlanta-themed show gets most of the bad-traffic jokes out of its system with the opening number, and, fortunately, finds more comedic grist as the show goes on.

At least half of the evening consists of time-tested sketches and gags from the Second City, the legendary Chicago-based improv troupe. Second City ensemble members Ed Furman and T.J. Shanoff wrote the rest of the show, based largely on a three-day visit to Atlanta in June. Audiences may be skeptical that out-of-towners can find humor in the ATL without stooping to cheap shots, but The Second City fares better than I expected in laughing with us, instead of at us.

Paradoxically, many of the sketches that feel the most authentically Atlantan could take place in many places in the United States, but rest on sharp characterizations and familiar concerns that strike close to home here. Anthony Irons delivers a short but spot-on portrait of a brash entrepreneur who declares "Clubbin' is my biz-ness!" but finds his project a hard sell. A couple's attempt to have a tender evening at an Applebee's could fit any American suburb, but maybe none better than our own: "I need you to take me somewhere romantic." "This is Smyrna!" Ric Walker wittily deconstructs the Coke polar bear and the sad-sack plight of corporate mascots in general. Amy Roeder offers an authentic portrayal of a Southern waitress reflecting on the city's changes.

A few of the targets and topics seem uninspired and obvious. A spoof that tailors the "When You're a Jet" song from West Side Story to University of Georgia football fans could be rewritten for any team from any city. A song about the antiquated practices of the Piedmont Driving Club seems far more familiar with barbershop quartets than the realities of the institution. References to Freaknik, Lenox Square and New Coke seem a few years out of date. (And, can I say a word in defense of New Coke? Sure, it tasted like a failed imitation of Pepsi, but it wasn't the nauseating swill that people seem to remember it as being.)

But strong sketches balance the weak ones, such as an R&B-style "sexy lady" song about Shirley Franklin, in which Davis puts soul behind such lyrics as "You're the first black female mayor in a major Southern city!" Probably the funniest sketch from Friday night's performance found a Confederate soldier and his wife writing letters to each other that take increasingly preposterous turns thanks to audience suggestions. A sketch about a market research team trying to come up with a new slogan for Atlanta zeroed in on the difficulty of defining Atlanta's character, even though people mostly like it here.

The material that counts as "Second City's greatest hits" proves fleet and funny, featuring one-liners and jokes that could be likened to the one-panel cartoons on a newspaper's comic strip page. For instance, a football fan's claim that "My dead grandma could have caught that pass!" proves to be demonstrably untrue.

In the tradition of the Second City's weekly Chicago performances, the evening offers two acts of sketches with some improvised material, and an entirely improvised encore about 20 minutes long. The all-improv section was energetic and fun, but I was struck that the improv games resembled the "Whose Line Is it Anyway?" approach, and weren't quite as interesting as the ones I see on a given night at Atlanta's home-grown improv ensembles. Perhaps the Second City chose to emphasize "Improv 101" for the touring show. Given that Dad's Garage improv director Tim Stoltenberg emerged as one of the best performers among the Alliance show's highly talented ensemble, Atlanta's native comedy seems perfectly capable of standing up for itself during a little Northern aggression.

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