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A CurtainUp Review
Chicago's Second City's America: All Better!
Second City's latest revue will be hard to confuse with the previous 95, especially for two scenes in the second act. Without giving away too much, it's safe to say that Michael Patrick O'Brien suddenly stops a sketch in which the financial bailout is personified as a john looking for the right corporate hookers to stimulate. What follows is so seemingly spontaneous that the audience, delighted to be let in on a romantic secret, play along and, well, the rest is, as the Pythons said, "something completely different."
For the Second Citizens on Well Street, thinking outside the box sometimes means leaving the stage. In the second memorable stunt Shelly Grossman plays a hyperactive Rumanian gymnast who treats the theater's long wooden railing like a giant balance beam. Drinks are quickly removed as she deftly traverses the width of the theater, her adoring coach telling audience members what to do to please the temperamental athlete.
Neither sketch actually fits the show's overall arc, which explores our search for easy answers during "Scary Times!". As the title suggests, America: All Better!" exploits our necessarily massive wishful thinking ("stuck like a dope with a thing called hope," Hammerstein put it), our non-negotiable faith that Obama has a quick fix for eight years of fascist misrule.
Accordingly Matt Hovde's skilled septet hurl themselves into fantasy-fueled sketches about the changes we need to believe in. A high school history class learns to say "black" out loud. Inmates on Death Row get to channel their rage by moving like their favorite animals. Cunningly contrasted, a rich and a poor family make diametrically different sacrifices to survive the recession. Rahm Emmanuel (Brad Morris) pursues Obama's agenda with pitbull fervor and gag-inducing threats. Sadly, the inevitable Blagojevich jokes inevitably come back to bite us.
The ensemble deliver the goods with a high interest rate, never more charming than when Gossman plays a trash-talking WWE wrestler while, as her rival, Lauren Ash delivers maddeningly thoughtful and compassionately restrained responses to her foul-mouthed taunts. This is vintage Second City magic, where the character-based jokes defy expectations to strip dangerous familiarity from a stupid stereotype.
A few sketches, mostly domestic, go off the rails, like a couple's meandering chat about parenting or a dating duo who entertain dumbly different concepts about playing safe. Saddest is the final scene, an interminable bit in which frazzled student in a public-speaking class are destroyed by an insect monster if they can't recreate Obama's soaring oratory. It's a metaphor for the public's excessive expectations for 2009 but it degenerates into an overly literal screamfest. Better to remember Gossman on the rail, taking risks few insurers will want to cover.
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