When Chicago-based comedy theater the Second City debuted America All Better four years ago, there actually was legitimate hope that things might be looking up at home, even though the economy was in the toilet, the country was still fighting two wars, and the governor of Illinois had recently been charged with attempting to auction off a seat in the Senate. America All Better expressed our national sense of what one candidate memorably described as “hopey-changey stuff,” even though, deep down, we all knew better.
America All Better is currently playing at Woolly Mammoth in the Second City’s fourth production at the theater, and maybe it’s the timing, or maybe it’s the self-awareness oozing out of the show’s premise, but this is the funniest, darkest, most memorable Washington work the troupe’s done yet. While A Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics floundered in its attempts to out-wonk audiences, and Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies came across as a trifle glib, America All Better skewers congressional sex scandals, hypocrisy, and the horrors of modernity in a way that feels almost effortless.
The show opens with a rapid-fire succession of vignettes, including a kid (Aaron Bliden) who suffers from attention surplus disorder and can only stare, bug-eyed, at one thing at a time, and a priceless, wordless scene involving the seduction of a blow-up sex doll (Niccole Thurman). But it’s in the improvised scenes that the six performers really excel. On press night, ensemble member Claudia Michelle Wallace let audience members offer suggestions for skits, with the caveat being that they had to offer cash bids, too. “You’ve all voted the way we really do vote in America,” she said, after someone forked out $30 for a (very funny) improvised sketch featuring Rahm Emanuel and Edward Snowden going bathing suit shopping together. The for-sale remunerative aspect of it all made the proceedings more than a little uncomfortable, which is obviously the whole point.
Making political jokes in Washington is something of a minefield—just ask Conan O’Brien, whose remarks at this year’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner were considerably less funny than President Obama’s. America All Better doesn’t shy away from them (company member Scott Morehead does a fantastic impression of 44, and Bliden is an impeccable Lindsey Graham), but the focus in America All Better is less on specifics and more on capturing the flawed state of the nation. Wallace is unsettlingly hilarious as a racist spewing bile at anyone who walks past her stoop, and a fake ad for 5-Hour Energy quickly takes a dark turn when the two teenagers trilling about its benefits give way to an older worker who takes it to stay awake through her three jobs. Meanwhile, a sketch about a man (Morehead) suffering from social anxiety disorder on a date with a woman (Sayjal Joshi) has an unexpectedly sweet and redemptive ending.
The ensemble members also shine in the musical numbers, which are supported by a manic keyboardist sitting just offstage, and are as well-written and harmonious as any in theaters this month. Joshi sings a memorable ode to modernity at the end, reminiscing about writing checks, relationships that don’t start online, and other hallmarks of a bygone era. Are things really better now? There isn’t much evidence to support that hypothesis, but luckily it’s hard to feel nostalgic when you’re laughing so hard your teeth hurt.
The Second City: America All Better is at Woolly Mammoth through August 4. Running time is one hour and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($35 to $67.50) are available via Woolly Mammoth’s website.