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Theater Review: “The Second City Presents America All Better” at Woolly Mammoth

The Chicago troupe returns to Washington with its funniest production yet.

First row: Aaron Bliden, Scott Morehead. Second row: Sayjal Joshi, Martin Garcia, Niccole Thurman, Claudia Michelle Wallace. Photograph by Todd Rosenberg.

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
 floundered in its attempts to out-wonk audiences, and Spoiler
Alert: Everybody
 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.