When I read back my own notes from Second City’s “America All Better” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, it reads like the recap of some half-remembered dream. “Twee,” says one. “Pervert Abe Lincoln,” another. I wittily jotted down the phrases “normal American family” and “Red Bull,” dangerously close to one another. Was this a factor of order, perhaps a reflection on our caffeine dependence?
In some ways, the dream metaphor is an accurate assessment of how Chicago’s Second City’s jaunt worked–and not only because a haunting, slowed-down version of Miley’s “Party in the USA” floated over the speakers at intermission. Jokes flew by faster than could be processed. Part sketch comedy, part improv, “America All Better” opened with gags on political correctness (themes of race, gender, sex), usually from a viewpoint of sheer practicality. The Chicago troupe stuck with the old reliable situations-everyone-can-laugh-at-ness, for the most part. That’s not to say I would take my supercharged politico friend with me.
The pianist/sound guy opened the show with a number that can only be described as the theme from the as yet unwritten Aaron Sorkin musical (please, Lord, don’t let this be a thing), a number choreographed with stiff, silhouetted poses and intermittent air humping. This really warmed us up for the serious political and social dialogue coming our way for the next hour and forty five. JK it was just awesome air humping and did nothing of the sort.
The show is a mutt: part musical, part game show, part drama and part comedy. Deconstructed row homes (complete with iron stars and a fanciful window dressing) served as the sparse set pieces framing scenes like a couple at a bar, controlled like marionettes by personified alcohol. Or like the second coming of Jesus, to Congress (where else would He touch down?). Can I say any more? It feels like the sketches are huge secret I can’t tell anyone, to preserve the sheer non-sequitur feeling. There were so many, though. And some of them were so, so good.
The improv was the lifeblood of the show, as expected from this historic outfit. They cracked it open with an auction-style volunteer system, with audience members outbidding each other, “voting” one scenario over another, ultimately culminating in a scene about Bill Clinton defining sex. Yes. Then, a mad-libs style gay wedding centered on the (semi-coerced) participation of a gawky and reserved older gentleman in the audience. His friends (and presumably wife) looked on as he explained where he and his boyfriend met, and said vows that were thankfully delivered at just the last moment by his best Second City actor friend. One of the most revealing improv-skit monsters arrived toward the end of the second act, the American Family. A family played out stereotypical dynamics, reversing backward into decades past with the suggestions of audience members- funny, because if you can’t laugh, you’ll cry. These are the kind of dark moments I relished for their physical and well-worded comedy, half taken in but considered later.
I see where Second City is going with their “America All Better!!” title, but thankfully even if America’s sick, their show is healthy. Prescription, it isn’t. Worth watching, it is.
Catch Second City’s “America All Better” at the Woolly Mammoth Theater through August 18th.