War Games

Second City makes funny about Saddam, Anna Nicole, and other signs of the apocalypse.

For Those About to Iraq, We Salute You Presented by Second City Cleveland at the Hanna Building, 2037 East 14th Street in Playhouse Square 216-685-0100
Cleveland's Second City improv troupe mugs for a thoroughly scripted photo.
Cleveland's Second City improv troupe mugs for a thoroughly scripted photo.

Looking at Second City's latest ads, which showcase onetime supernova, now super-dead alum Chris Farley, you may wonder whether this vaunted legacy has any relevance to sketch comedy in Cleveland. After all, unless you're planning a trip to Chicago circa 1988, Farley's just not much good for a laugh anymore.

But for timely, homegrown sketch comedy that mostly lives up to the Second City hype, For Those About to Iraq, We Salute You should prove satisfying -- especially if you're looking to celebrate your divine right as an American to mock your government, and if you can tolerate a tepid first half, and if you love jokes about Applebee's, which we absolutely do.

With a distinctly dark and, well, unfunny topic incorporated into the show's title, it's natural to wonder at first whether the sketch format can deliver an effective satirical punch without eliciting discomforting cringes. Interns are funny, dangling chads are hilarious, and now there's the sad specter of Martha Stewart ('nough said). But the impending war, soft economy, and airport cavity searches? Perhaps not so much. Fortunately, Second City shows it can do teetering-on-the-brink-of-annihilation humor with the best of them.

And though the first half is slow, the second act is wildly better -- not just because the performers seem to have warmed up, but because the material seems to have been stacked that way. Hopefully, the improv element means the content will change from show to show, but director Joshua Funk might consider reshuffling the deck to add a little more substance to the first hour.

Nonetheless, the Cleveland ensemble is strong, and if it improves throughout the season as it did from start to finish of Iraq's opening night, audiences will be in luck. Jack Hourigan, who has the energy of an aggressive bunny rabbit, is the thinking-person's Amy Poehler (the gap-toothed blonde currently featured on Saturday Night Live). He exhibits brilliant physicality in separate turns as a spastic Applebee's server (one of our "Applebuddies!") and as a cartwheeling disco ninja.

Blond, bookish-looking Cody Dove, another of the troupe's stronger presences and nimbler minds, is masterfully smart and slouchy in a sketch with Hourigan about a discontented Clevelander who comes up with a litany of reasons to bitch about the city without even mentioning Al Lerner. The sketch provides some of the show's more inspired moments (including a rip on Cleveland nightlife: "Fagan's in the Flats? Yes, table of four for drowning, please"), but it also has an almost poignant ending, reminding many of us why we choose to stay here: It's the relationships, stupid.

Some of the sketches are depressingly predictable, including one about a flag-waving Afghani cab driver eager to prove to his fares how much he loves his adoptive home -- playing "Born in the U.S.A." on the stereo, etc. The sketch features George Pete Caldolis, an underused cast member whose best moment comes during a simple, engaging little musical number featuring two clowns extolling the virtues of helium. Yes, it's as stupid as it sounds, but Caldolis imbues the bagatelle with a blissed-out, infectious zeal.

Dana Quercioli, who brings a smartass, blue-collar tough-mama edge to the cast, does well as the mother in an improv sketch in which audience members shout out years and the cast depicts a day in the life of a nuclear family during that year. On opening night, it was 2002, 1977, and 1922. The daughter suffered from West Nile virus, VD, and polio, respectively. The father sat at the television to watch Anna Nicole, Starsky & Hutch, and shadow puppets. Disease and crappy entertainment have always been with us, the sketch says, but at least we can laugh about it.

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