Live Review: Sky's the Limit (Weather Permitting) at the e.t.c.
The good news first: After consistently trailing the Second City e.t.c. in innovative, cutting-edge revues, the Mainstage is once again the place to see top-notch sketch comedy in Chicago. The bad news, of course, is that this means the e.t.c.—which has been on a creative roll since Studs Terkel's Not Working—has slipped a bit with its 35th revue, Sky's the Limit (Weather Permitting), which opened last night. This is not to say it's a bad revue, it's actually quite pleasing. But its creative sheen has dimmed a bit this time around.
It's not for lack of talent. Tim Baltz, Brendan Jennings and Mary Sohn (who were themselves newcomers for the e.t.c.'s smash 34th revue, Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life) bring to the stage a panache for creating bold and believable characters. A terrific scene between Baltz and Sohn imagines an awkward first date that just might unravel due to social anxiety disorder. Not only does the scene have an unexpected twist (which the revue as a whole could've used more of) but Baltz and Sohn play it with pitch-perfect tenderness. (For another amazing Baltz-Sohn relationship collaboration, visit breakups.us and scroll down to Tim & Mary.) Likewise, Jennings continues to delight with trippy, weird characters. This time around it's in the form of a flamboyant gay man advocating for marriage equality and as a hapless Chicago version of a Keystone Kop (a silly role which Jennings shares with Baltz).
But I would've liked to have seen newcomers Aidy Bryant, Jessica Joy and Michael Lehrer come a little more unhinged. Bryant was fearless in the Annoyance's Swear Jar, and her best work here is a sweetly bizarre scene in which she plays a dork imagining her pet bird Daniel is actually her boyfriend (Baltz's avian impression is spot on). Joy, meanwhile, is a beauty, and it would've been nice to see her play more against type. She does have one fantastic musical number in which she plays an atheist wondering aloud about life's little annoyances. "If Jesus didn't sing on your album, why do you always thank him at the Grammy's?" she asks. Also: "Heaven for atheists is a place where we can look down on all the Christians and see the shock on their faces when they learn there is no heaven." It's great stuff. Lehrer's skills are best showcased during the revue's improvised scenes, although I loved a number in which he plays an office drone who finds the courage to dream big.
But there's some twee, run-of-the-mill stuff in here as well. A scene between a rowdy Cubs fan and his fed up girlfriend is forgettable (Chicago comedians seem perpetually stuck on writing Cubs-themed sketches), as is a number that finds two drunkards duking it out on the street, and ditto a Thanksgiving dinner in which a couple learns of an unwanted pregnancy. Director Matt Hovde has proven he can loosen the screws on scenes and he could have done more of that here. A perfect example is the show's finale, in which a couple marvels at the wonders of modern life while simultaneously picking off zombies with their shotguns. It's strange, unexpected and wonderful, and proves that in sketch comedy, the sky's the limit. I hope the e.t.c. continues to reach for it.