Friday, July 25, 2008

Yankees Go Home

Some Americans Abroad
Written by Richard Nelson
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Starring Emily Bergl, Tom Cavanagh, John Cunningham, Fiona Dourif, Halley Feiffer, Enid Graham, Cristin Milioti, Pamela Payton-Wright, Anthony Rapp, Corey Stoll, Todd Weeks

Performances from June 25 to August 10, 2008
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street

Graham, Cavanagh, Rapp and Bergl (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Richard Nelson’s insinuatingly funny Some Americans Abroad, several college students and their teacher-chaperones travel to England to dip their toes in British Culture–which consists mostly of attending London (and Stratford) theater.

The group is led by new English Department head Joe Taylor, ineffectual, stolid, and unable–or unwilling–to accept the responsibilities at the top. Also on board are other professors: womanizing Philip Brown and non-nonsense Frankie Lewis (who are having an affair), and Henry McNeil who, with his wife Betty, have paid their own way hoping it helps Henry retain his precarious, and untenured, position.

Of the students, we meet Joe’s levelheaded daughter Katie, who reluctantly accepts Philip’s playful grabs, and Donna Silliman, who disappears after meeting a young man from Amherst College and deciding that daily theatergoing isn’t her thing. Nelson also skillfully sketches in periphery characters, including an American tourist who accosts Joe during intermission of Troilus and Cressida at Stratford, and the former department head, Orson Baldwin and his wife Joanne, who have retired to a wonderfully historic house in Jamesian Sussex–as opposed to Dickensian London, Joanne notes.

This is no Neil Simon farce or Boeing Boeing (thank God!), so there are no slamming doors, mistaken identities or other outrageously implausible happenings going on in Nelson’s England. Instead, Nelson has penned a precise, genteel comedy of manners that paints these semi-obnoxious but endearing would-be intellectuals with a lovingly detailed brush.

The play revolves around Joe, who unsurprisingly cannot tell Henry that, not only is tenure not an option, but he will be out of a job. Even when confronted separately by Henry and Betty about his intentions, Joe cannot speak the truth to their faces. He’s also unhappily involved when Donna returns from her unscheduled dalliance to accuse Philip of groping her, which he vehemently denies. Naturally, Joe hopes that the incident will simply disappear.

Daring to make his audience work for their comedy–there are no cheap laughs here–Nelson expertly controls a play that could, in lesser hands, become monotonous: his characters are given identifiable quirks (like their constant itemizing of restaurant bills in order to pay only their share) which serve to humanize them as more than simply objects of their creator’s derision.
The marvelous opening scene finds Joe pontificating about art and other topics, which shows him as a pretentious windbag as well as a coward. Later, anxious moments at Orson’s home–where the chill in the air is not entirely due to the brisk British weather–serve to create another gem of exacting comic writing, as we simultaneously laugh at and commiserate with these not-so-ugly Americans.

In Gordon Edelstein’s first-rate production, Michael Yeargan’s spare sets are carried onstage, then cleverly moved to the rear for each successive scene: the accumulating bric-a-brac piles up like so many cultural signposts for these superficial tourists, whose pathetic attempt at singing “God Save the Queen” on Westminster Bridge is a comically awful high–or low–point.

Standouts in a large cast are Tom Cavanagh’s Joe, all hilariously stuttering hemming and hawing; Emily Bergl’s keenly-wrought Betty, Henry’s slightly embarrassed wife; and John Cunningham’s Orson, a fascistic jackass who doesn’t mince words now that he’s retired–witness his politically incorrect remark about Henry’s teaching dilemma: “Too bad Henry’s not black.” But all of the actors–save Halley Feiffer, whose portrayal of a former student of Joe who now is an English housewife is one-note–are quite good.

Nelson still writes intelligent plays, like the Tony-nominated Two Shakespearean Actors, the Frank Lloyd Wright biopic Frank’s Home, the recent Conversations in Tusculum. Yet Some Americans Abroad remains his best, most thoughtful work. Its final scene–a mirror of the opening one (but what a difference so many days and plays make!)–is suffused with a wistful melancholy that’s at the heart of this extremely funny but subtly painful comedy.

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