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Sketchy, at Best 

An able cast serves up stale sketch comedy at Second City.

Baghdadi boasts a game cast and a gamey - script.
  • Baghdadi boasts a game cast and a gamey script.

If you're going on vacation this summer, don't forget to stop by the Sketch Comedy Hall of Fame located in -- oh, wait, there is no such place. And it's a damn shame. The fact is, nightclub sketch comedy isn't a respected art form; it's just a training ground for comic actors, until they get good enough to happily sell out and show up in sitcoms or films. Or until they grow old and fade back into society as humorless and faceless drones, like the rest of us.

Since its founding in 1959, The Second City has been carrying the sketch comedy banner high while grooming true Hall of Famers such as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and John Candy. Each of those Second City alumni was a genius of the form -- superb at creating instant characters and memorable moments in a handful of minutes (or seconds), and then blasting off into a new role. And while they all moved on to other pursuits, they never achieved the greatness that characterized their time onstage with Second City -- or on TV with Saturday Night Live and SCTV.

The current crop of Cleveland-based Second City performers, now in the new revue Who's Yer Baghdadi?, is a lively and gifted group -- perhaps even future stars of the genre -- but they're undermined by scripted material so dated, it creaks. Yes, their social satire really bites, but not in the good sense. The show's promotional material promises "a comic look at America's changing culture in the wake of war and world events of the recent past." Unfortunately, the bulk of Baghdadi behaves as if the 21st century never arrived, occupying its time with sketches based on exhausted comic premises: a bumbling psychic, a family getting high on pot, seafood-restaurant and yoga-class gags, competitive dog owners, and an IRA terrorist. And of course, there are the obligatory dentist, gynecologist, and fart-on-a-date sequences. This show even dredges up poor old Chief Wahoo again, to tepidly flog the issue of racism one more time.

It's not as if there's been a dearth of more recent events and issues worthy of satire (tax-cut mania, reality TV, CEO rip-offs, human cloning, convention-center dust-ups, and hip-hop movies about white people all come to mind). Of course, it's to be expected that some evergreen material would be included, since certain human dynamics -- such as sexual gamesmanship and doctor-patient relationships -- never really change. But a full 90 percent of the revue is about as fresh as one of Rodney Dangerfield's Borscht Belt sharkskin suits.

In an attempt to make the show both localized and topical, Baghdadi starts off with a musical tribute to the Ohio bicentennial, which is mildly amusing (an Ohioan invented the hot dog, after a small epiphany -- "Hey, where you goin' with those pigs' lips and assholes?"). And it ends with the wonderful title-song parody of the Iraq war, featuring an electrifying Kiff Vanden Heuvel as a slick pimp-daddy Uncle Sam, turning out one bitch-slapped country after another. Along the way, each of the actors occasionally steps forward as another nation (Canada, Germany, etc.), addressing the U.S. as the new bully-boy on the block. If only the entire production could have had the wit and edge of the final sketch.

The lack of intriguing comic material is a real crime, since the six-person Second City cast is remarkably strong and consistent. (A little too consistent, in fact, since it features all the diversity of Trent Lott's barbershop quartet -- no ethnic minorities in sight.) Still, Lauren Dowden and Jack Hourigan (both gals) are petite fireballs. Katie Caussin vamps as the sensuously put-upon France, reminding America that it taught us how to kiss. Cody Dove, leveraging his mischievous Ivy League looks, provides a wry, Phil Hartmanesque core for the troupe. And the animated Randall Harr infuses contagious energy into his bits, especially as an irrepressible gay guy on the make.

Perhaps Baghdadi's biggest disappointment is the absence of satiric courage. While it's not wise for any such group to advance a particular agenda, it's equally foolish to avoid all controversy. If they had attacked oppositional viewpoints equally -- and with some real attitude -- the humor would have been far more invigorating, and in the end, it would have felt balanced. The mushy middle ground is no place for satire to set up camp, especially in these contentious times.

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