Sketch comedy is a crazy animal. It requires equal parts moxie and savvy to bring it off. The new Second City project, Less Talk, Motown, has plenty of both. Alas, all too often, not at the same time.
The evening opens as it should, with an improv session that gives the audience a quick introduction to the players. The premise is a Senate hearing with the accused and his mouthpiece (Topher Owen and Kiff VandenHeuvel) fending off the buffoonery of a Southern demagogue (Jeff Fritz). The audience provides the topic; the players run with it. The skit doesn’t work, but so what? The galvanic jitters of the cast succeed in lifting the show off the pad.
That said, the first half is a dog’s breakfast of half-baked ideas that never really gel, culminating in a disastrous sing-along set in an Irish pub. The audience provides the names of television cartoons that the cast inserts into an inane tippling ditty that slogs on interminably. Music director John Edwardtowski looms in the shadows at the foot of the stage, vamping listlessly at an electronic keyboard, waiting for the team to lumber into a final chorus and thus release his fingers from our torment.
Suzan Gouine and Cheri Lynne, both delightfully charismatic, are underutilized in the first act. Gouine has great facial expressions, and the always gorgeous Lynne can do sass like no woman south of Eight Mile. The woman is divine! We get far too much of Fritz and his succubus, Owen. One moment reminiscent of early Steve Martin, the next of the late Paul Lynde, Fritz is obviously the kingpin of the cast, the one with the most fuel to burn. But there’s also an unsettling air of toxicity to him, the signature vibe that one too often picks up from stand-up comedians and their ilk.
The second half is far better, precisely because it’s better scripted and more focused on the topic at hand. The centerpiece is a dream sequence involving our very own Biggie Smalls, aka Kwame Kilpatrick (Antoine McKay). The mayor takes on the deadbeats of City Council and then sets off to right all the wrongs that bedevil our fair burg — the very things that keep people just like the audience from venturing downtown. Along the way, he consults with the Spirit of Detroit and Joe Louis’ fist. The sketch works beautifully, articulating the collective hope that our city is coming back and the captain of the ship is up to the job. McKay zips around the stage, clearly enjoying himself, and the other players give him great support.
If only the cast had put as much thought into the rest of the show. These are talented people capable of better. Yet is it worth their while? Second City has its roots in the Midwest; its appeal is decidedly suburban — edgy but safe. So suburban that, at times, you swear you can smell Buffalo wings and stale brew wafting from the stage and the seats. People come to shows like this for entertainment, not erudition. Anything more heavy-hitting and sustained would necessarily step outside the boundaries of improv sketch comedy.
But what’s wrong with edgy and dangerous? If not now, when?
Less Talk, Motown is at Second City Theatre (2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit) Thursdays and Sundays at 8 p.m. ($15) and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and 10 p.m. ($20). Call 313-965-2222.Timothy Dugdale writes about the dance of ideas for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com