America: land of substances. Land of stereotypes and instant gratification. Land of problems. Land of racism, with inequality and injustice for all. But it’s ok because things have gotten much better. This comedic collaboration between The Second City and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company brings to the stage a hilarious evening of irreverent fun, guided by a framework of social commentary, political corruption, and all around ridiculous notions of Gluten-free, post racial, gender neutral America. As if such a thing were ever possible.
Directed by Ryan Bernier, the production is a roller coaster ride of sketch comedy, improvisation, song and dance numbers, and an overall satirical expression of the state of our nation, written with poignant and sarcastic wit that highlights topics that are relatable and laughable to everyone.
Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills crafts a lively pulse in his design work, so much so that the constant change in the lighting almost becomes a seventh invisible character, intricately woven into the shenanigans that are happening on the stage. Bills creates a surging party atmosphere with a plethora of perky colors blinking in and out of focus during the dance scenes and uses the sharp plunges into darkness or subdued tones to crisply end a scene. These perfectly executed lighting maneuvers makes the performance move brusquely, keeping a rapid pace that allows the momentum of the show to build while illuminating each event as its own unique entity.
Director Ryan Bernier works with the six members of the ensemble to create a unique and positively smashing social commentary in this production. Everything is covered from the current political climate involving same-sex marriage equality, to a flashback look at our country’s more conservative history, and everything you can think of in-between. Bernier incorporates multiple mediums of performance art to keep the audience engaged, including a highly interactive segment that demonstrates how politicians and their ideas are sold to the highest private bidder which serves the dual purpose of picking the show’s next scene. The creative genius infused into this work is astonishing, and the loosely structured framework keeps the show on track while allowing a lot of free wiggle room to keep things zany: you may easily see this show four or five times and still not see the same show.
The six ensemble performers have a powerful bond among them, working together as one gelled unit that shares an incredible energy. They are spunky and excitable, their upbeat personalities and willingness to laugh and have fun serving as an easily contagious ambiance that primes the audience for a great night of live theatre, where anything can happen. The really impressive facet of their performance is their ability to use improv for various scenes. Tagging in and out of these moments with exceptional rhythm and following the natural flow of the scene, this six players go for gold. They play for truth, letting the organic comedy arise from the subject matter and with this approach to their improvised scenes you never get a moment that feels forced or contrived simply for the sake of getting a laugh. They respond impeccably well to one another, bouncing suggestions and ideas off one another. But the thing they understand best about improvisation is knowing the precise moment to kill or continue a scene. There is a fine line of perfection executed here, every scene finding the epitome of a natural ending without over extending or feeling too short. That sort of mastery of understanding improv in a scene is a tremendous accomplishment, one these performers should be well commended for.
With stunning improv skills, the sketch comedy presented in small snippets is equally entertaining. Scott Morehead takes on a good deal of the character acting. Morehead shares a scene with Sayjal Joshi that presents a deep social commentary on the reality of dating in modern day America. One of the sweetest and most truthful, though still hilarious, moments in the production, Morehead and Joshi play this moment with a serene and sweet honesty that really touches the audience’s hearts, opening our eyes to what the dating experience has become with all its social anxieties and awkward uncertain moments.
Joshi leads a good number of the songs presented in this performance, cute little numbers that detail how “…the past really blows…” and a song about what a child born today will never experience (like learning cursive and writing out checks.) Her quirky sprightly personality adds a layer of comedy to the performance that keeps the audience on its toes.
Also singing with Joshi is Niccole Thurman, though her song is the deeper more soulful rendition of how to be a cheap bastard in this collapsed economy. Thurman has brilliant facial expressions both in her song and when playing the ‘blow-up doll’ during one of the sketches. Her physicality is her main comedic tool and she utilizes it fully in scenes with Aaron Bliden. Mostly playing himself in different situations, Bliden is equally present as a comic device, using his voice to garner the laughs from the audience.
Claudia Michelle Wallace leads the audience segment trying to pick a topic on which to improvise a scene. Wallace has a particular sketch bit that involves her barking out every racial stereotype in the book as she calls them out from her front lawn, a seriously comic moment that toes the line of off-color humor, forcing the audience to recognize we are the stereotypes about which we gripe.
And Martin Garcia has the highest honor of them all. Trying to put into perspective what it’s like to be a gay man wanting to get married, as seen through the eyes of a straight man, he drags an audience member up into the most hilarious segment of the show; a half-improvised, half scripted wedding palooza that brings the audience to uproarious applause when all is said and done.
The Second City: America All Better!! is truly brilliant whether you’re looking at it for its vast social commentary, it’s deep political debunking, or even just its surface laughs, and should be seen before the band-aid comes undone and this company rolls back to Chicago.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
The Second City: America All Better!! Plays through August 18, 2013 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.