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At its best, Second City e.t.c.’s ‘Apes of Wrath’ a space odyssey
There’s a streak of geek in “Apes of Wrath,” the new Second City e.t.c. revue that works best when delving into the minds of brainiacs for both the weird little ways they live and the huge things they think about.
Despite the name, you don’t see any primates enduring experiments or hurling bones into space in this production, directed by veteran local writer-teacher Jen Ellison in her first crack at a resident Second City stage. (The title may refer to the office workers in one sketch who learn of an imminent firing and turn savage.) But it has its own kind of evolution.
Out of the gate the show is frantic, visiting Buzzfeed HQ and doing the standard goof on that site, making up listy, quizzy posts about Grumpy Cat and Ryan Gosling that cut too close to the real thing to really count as spoof. As an old-school journalist (Tim Ryder) frets, the ADD-addled Buzzfeeders twitch and contort in a frenetic stage picture that quickly eats at the eyes.
That scene and the next few go heavy on the topical, creating a dread that tossed-off references to GIFs and Groupon and “Real Housewives” will be this show’s feeble backbone. The premises have points obvious (a guy’s dream about his platonic friend reveals he’s in love, a woman singing about her need for perfection has a dark interior) or altogether absent (a rich Titanic passenger refuses to evacuate).
Things finally perk up with the arrival of a boyfriend surrogate robot (Eddie Mujica, in fine, smoothly automated form) confronted by his owner (Brooke Breit) about whether he loves her. The idea here — that nervous male instincts can be logically programmed — is funny and fresh, and it’s in this scientific groove where “Apes of Wrath” fits most comfortably.
The first act ends with improv: Ryder and Punam Patel as leotarded performance artists whose deft, poetic spins on audience suggestions take the sequence beyond mere pretentious-artist parody.
It’s after intermission when “Apes” comes alive, especially in a reunion of two kids on the competitive chess circuit (Ryder and Patel again) whose nerdy comfort with each other dissolves their usual social ineptitude. Barecca makes her first appearance as the singing moon, a concept revisited and expanded until it becomes an intricate, full-on, full-cast, space-themed love song. As her gleeful discovery of the sometimes planet Pluto (Ryder) weaves into a man’s yearning for his faraway astronaut wife and another romance between colliding galaxies — and then connects back to characters from earlier in the show — “Apes of Wrath” achieves that blissful transcendence that makes a great Second City show so fulfilling (and summons happy memories of “Campaign Supernova,” a wonderful, similarly science-themed e.t.c. show from a few years back).
The three women from last year’s e.t.c. effort are all back, their identities better etched: Patel anxious but prepared to get goofy, Breit peripatetic with a ready roar, Barreca a glamorous screwball right out of Old Hollywood. Of the men, all e.t.c. newcomers, the standout is Mujica, a charmer as a Cuban taking the U.S. citizenship test and roaming the audience for help on the answers.
Their work is paying off in some glorious moments, written in the stars.
‘APES OF WRATH’
When: Open run
Where: Second City e.t.c., 230 W. North
Info: (312) 337-3992; secondcity.com