With their customary assortment of gags, jabs, songs and jibes, the jokesters of Chicago’s venerable Second City are back in town. And if the shivs they plunge into an array of soft targets don’t always yield the level of giddy bloodletting evident in their last Washington stand, the company’s half-dozen comic emissaries still complete their mission with the troupe’s expectedly satisfying mix of wit and polish.
In fact, the best sketch of this installment, titled “Second City: America All Better!!” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, hinges as much on the skills of a seventh, honorary Second City-ite as it does on the pros. Without revealing too many other details, I am able to report that an architect named Paul was fated on the night I attended to be plucked from ticket-holder’s obscurity and made the star of a clever skit about single-sex matrimony.
You of course are not surprised to find a gay wedding as a featured event on a program of topical comedy taking place smack dab in the middle of 2013. The NRA figures prominently, too, in a song that declares, “More can never be wrong,” and the litany of subjects borrowed from the collective American pop and headline consciousness also naturally includes Paula Deen, Pinterest and immigration. (An improvisatory, though kind of flat, skit built on suggestions from the audience had an absurdist D.C. tinge to it: Edward Snowden and Rahm Emanuel going shopping together for swimming trunks.)
This time around, though, the issue-citing Second City sketches don’t pay off as well as those inspired by observations of the everyday. (Live theater comedy has a hard time these days keeping up with the round-the-clock upstaging by online quipping.) One of my favorites is a beguilingly awkward first date in which Scott Morehead, as a man afflicted with social anxieties, meets Sayjal Joshi for dinner, and funnily and touchingly reads conversational replies to her off note cards. With a wry assist from Martin Garcia, as a waiter with exactly zero sexual inhibitions, the skit veers pleasingly, courtesy of these deft actors, from silly all the way to sentimental.
“America All Better!!” was introduced into Second City’s repertory in Chicago several years ago, with a different cast and sketches, which may be why the title doesn’t really capture anything incisive about the content: While a series of parallel skits go progressively further back in time, slyly cataloguing shifts in American taste and attitudes, the show as directed by Ryan Bernier is too scattershot to offer the acerbic portrait of our times that its name suggests.
Still, the evening does fly by, thanks to the fleetness of the cast, which also includes the accomplished Niccole Thurman, Aaron Bliden and Claudia Michelle Wallace, and the insertion of lightning-round rotations of scenes that recall segments of the old “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” TV series. If “America All Better!!” is not Second City’s finest hour (and 45 minutes), it is certainly fine enough.
The Second City: America All Better!!, by the Second City. Directed by Ryan Bernier. Musical direction, Jacob Shuda; set and lighting, Colin K. Bills; artistic consultant, Billy Bungeroth. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Aug. 18 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.