Review: Second City NYC opens with ‘Ruthless Acts of Kindness’ in a theater still finding its way

NEW YORK — A Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich is on the menu at Second City’s new outpost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The tasty if pricey sandwich is an outlier among the Brooklyn lager, and a necessary reminder of the famed comedy troupe’s Old Town origins, as Second City now attempts to conquer the unfamiliar stomping grounds of amply inked, beanie-wearing hipsters enjoying the trendy nightlife of the outer boroughs.

Man, do these New Yorkers need some education. First, they have to learn to show up; Saturday night’s house for the first mainstage New York revue, “Ruthless Acts of Kindness,” was less than full, meaning that the hard acoustic edge of this new room (the former Rough Trade USA record store and music venue) still needed more softening bodies, even as some folks dribbled in late as if this were a laissez-faire stand-up club. Please.

Second, they have to learn to shut up during the show, rather than, say, performing their own sketches from their seats. Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen my share of disruptive audience members at Second City in Chicago. But the character near me in Gotham was nothing like the usual drunk conventioneer: he was so deeply, deeply into certain parts of the show, he presented as an SCTV obsessive, but he was, alas, also an inveterate verbalizer.

Third, New Yorkers still have to learn that the role of an audience suggestion is to be the straight man, so to speak, and not a chance to demonstrate their own performative wit. Geez. Give ’em time, I guess.

Director Jen Ellison’s revue, featuring a mostly trained-in-Chicago company made up of Ashley Blair, Ben Rameaka, Yazmin Ramos, Drew Reilly, Jordan Savusa and Jacklyn Uweh with musical direction from Jeff Bouthiette, has made every effort to create a show for New York, a smart idea, especially given the choice to go with a Williamsburg location, whereas most visitors stay in Manhattan. Bespoke Gotham material here includes irritation with apartment sizes, an unhealthy obsession with podcasts, mercurial landlords, irritating Broadway musicals, Goldman Sachs bros, moving through time and space en masse, and getting divorced at 29 (even from your nice throuple). And there was a fun moment when one audience member was overly hesitant.

“You’re taking too long,” shot back Ramos, moving on. Nice. Very New York and very funny.

But there’s also plenty of Chicago carryover: the subway system can be a pain here, too, and Uber Eats is Uber Eats wheresoe’r you go. A veritable bounty of comedic material in all locales.

The best stuff, though, is in the grittier Second City wheelhouse with origins in those who work for a living: two cops on the subway, a delicious lampooning of college football coaches from the likes of Chris Christie University trying to seduce some new recruits. A big Act 2 parody of Victorian-style British detective dramas was a bit of a bust, though. And, in general, I’d say that the music needs to be far better integrated into the show; it seemed to disappear here. Frankly, a good bit of the show was overplayed as this cast tried to take the temperature of such a new room.

Early days, then, for Second City NYC and understandably so. You can see the benefit of Savusa’s long experience performing at the Chicago flagship. He’s a whopping talent and the standout in the new show, not least because he has the right sense of ease and enough confidence to really listen to his cast mates. But there’s potential elsewhere, too: Blair is a lively comedian who I think would be better in different, off-the-news material (sports, theater, anything comedically physical), and Uweh is a smart, funny performer who just needs more definition and focus.

I’m also honor-bound to observe that any Chicago Tribune critic who has been reviewing Second City for 30 years does (and should, I’d argue) have a complicated relationship with the first city, in its own mind, having a better show. It’s not, yet, but I nonetheless pledge painful honesty should that prove to be the case in the future.

The audience, though? Yeah, well. We’ll have to see.

At Second City NYC, 64 N. 9th St., Brooklyn, New York;

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.