America: All Better! Second City
"Hope Obama doesn't fuck it up!" says Anthony LeBlanc in Second City's new main-stage revue, America: All Better! LeBlanc's blunt declaration caps a seriocomic soliloquy in which he shares his excitement as a black man that we've finally elected a black president and his pride as a Chicagoan that the commander-in-chief-to-be made his bones in the Windy City. And though LeBlanc is the sole African-American in director Matt Hovde's seven-person cast, it's clear that his colleagues share both his dream of a better future in the Obama era and his anxiety that the dream will be dashed. Hope versus fear, optimism versus skepticism—that's the theme of Second City's smart, often hilarious response to this historic moment.
The show begins with a giddy Lauren Ash singing the praises of Obama as America's savior, even as a castmate interrupts to remind her that she's lost her home, the market's dropped 1,000 points, and the governor just got arrested on corruption charges. By evening's end, though, cynical pessimism has given way to an embrace of Obama's "yes we can" rhetoric: a horror film parody finds a group of grade-schoolers reciting the PE's victory speech as a way to stave off being eaten by a monster.
In another vignette, the impact of Obama's victory is deconstructed by African-American academic Cornel West (LeBlanc) in impenetrable responses to questions asked by Ash as an airhead MTV interviewer. And Shelly Gossman does by far the best imitation I've seen of Obama's cool, considered, slightly halting cadences in a clever routine about a woman wrestler who responds to her opponent's crude gibes with measured, conciliatory answers.
But for all the Obama allusions, political satire doesn't figure all that heavily here. There's a brief nod to Rod and Patti Blagojevich, Illinois' foul-mouthed first family, as well as a running gag about Rahm Emanuel ("the Hebrew hit man"). And—in one of the evening's few clunkers—there's a grossly unfair lampoon of Mayor Daley pitching Chicago to the Olympics site selection committee, in which Daley is portrayed by Michael Patrick O'Brien as a vulgar moron who doesn't know the el trains run to Evanston. Oddly, O'Brien doesn't attempt to mimic Daley's speaking style, which makes the bit even less effective.
America: All Better! focuses primarily on how average folks are handling a world of unprecedented possibilities and challenges, paradoxes and conundrums, economic downturns and emotional upticks.
Emily Wilson, who excels at comically extreme anger, delivers a monologue about a housewife who's upset that her husband's out of work—not because of the money but because having him around the house is driving her nuts. Brad Morris plays an upper-middle-class 12-year-old coping with his family's financial troubles, which mean they'll have to vacation in the Wisconsin Dells rather than the Cayman Islands. Morris also appears as a guy from the bankrupt Chicago Tribune, proudly introducing "our new format"—a roll of toilet paper. Joe Canale shows up as a Schlitz-drinking suburbanite whose 35-year-old son has lost his job and moved back home just as dad's trying to get the sex back into his marriage by rehabbing the basement as a 1960s-style love pad, complete with beanbag chairs.
It seems the Second City company would rather leave the breaking news to television's comic commentators, like SNL, Jon Stewart, D.L. Hughley, and Stephen Colbert (a Second City veteran). The choice makes sense: TV can respond much more rapidly to changing events than a long-running sketch revue can. But not even the sharpest on-air satire can match the distinctive experience of a live performance in an intimate cabaret, and America: All Better! is at its best when it celebrates that. In one marvelous routine, Gossman as a Russian gymnast walks the length of the rail that bisects the Second City auditorium, gingerly making her way around customers' drinks. Strumming a guitar, LeBlanc sings a folkie ode to interracial love, flirting shamelessly with women in the audience as he voices lewd stereotypes of black male sexuality.
Global warming is addressed in an improvised sequence in which the world's last living polar bear banters with a front-row audience member—in effect, playing with his food. And, in the evening's highlight, the entire cast gathers for a metaphor-laden sketch satirizing Capitol Hill's response to the economic crisis. The setting is a Wild West town, and the auto and banking industries are represented as whores competing for a prospective john—Congress. Gradually, though, the scene falls apart, as the performers' interpersonal relationships come to the fore and they start squabbling. The sequence is carried off with such brilliant weirdness that I'm still not sure it was planned.
Second City's trademark blend of spontaneity and slickness is on full display in America: All Better! That bodes well for the troupe's 50th anniversary next year. Hope they don't fuck it up.v
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