The first fifteen minutes of Pat O’Brien’s “Shatter” are improvised. Just O’Brien—low-key and deadpan—and a few props, awkwardly interacting with the audience. It’s pure genius. (The one-man show runs on a double bill Tuesday nights at the Second City e.t.c.) The opening bit involves the Guinness Book of World Records, exposed for the stupid collection of random anecdotes that it is, with O’Brien attempting to shatter various entries. In his sweater vest and tie, the guy is like an overgrown Catholic school boy, shy and yet unexpectedly subversive. There’s a lot of Andy Kaufman in his performance—a kind of agreeable hostility—and you’re never quite sure what’s going on or when it’s OK to laugh. You can’t ask for more in this particular genre—rare is the one-man show this good or this outrageously unexpected. O’Brien has a canny way of playing his intelligence and observational skills against his low-grade skittishness and apparent innocence. The result is an inspired sort of looniness. When playing himself, he is both uncomfortable in his skin and very much in command. In the scripted portions, his focus on the smallest details of character is like an Edward Hopper come to life: With Foghat’s “Slow Ride” blasting from the speakers, he is a pool shark nailing every shot in time with the music, a freaky look on his face—all crazy eyes and ego. The performance is scaled just right. He does a creepy-ingratiating turn as an instructor teaching a course on how to play the spoons, and gives a nice middle finger to bad stand-up routines—performed behind a giraffe mask. He also backs into an uproarious joke involving the insipid lyrics to Matchbox 20’s “3am”—the bit requires a long setup, but the payoff is worth it. See this show before it closes. Preceding O’Brien is Nicky Margolis, a former e.t.c. cast member whose one-woman show “Split!” follows the rhythms and beats of a standard Second City revue. She is chipper, if only mildly funny. But she is uncompromising when it comes to attacking the narcissistic underpinnings of a one-person show, and her final scene—which has her singing a power ballad duet about self-empowerment with a video of herself, like something out of a deranged “Wicked”—is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time, pushing self-love to its obvious conclusion. It’s a hilarious conceit, and she pulls it off perfectly. (Nina Metz)
“Split” and “Shatter” run at Second City e.t.c., 1608 North Wells, (312)642-8189, on Tuesdays through July 29.