Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brits Off Broadway 2010 - Part I

Personal Enemy

Written by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton
Directed by David Aula
Starring Karen Lewis, Tony Turner, Genevieve Allenbury, Mark Oosterveen, Joanne King, Peter Clapp, Steven Clarke


Lingua Franca
Written by Peter Nichols
Directed by Michael Gieleta
Starring Anna Carteret, Enzo Cilenti, Ian Gelder, Abigail McKern, Chris New, Charlotte Randle, Natalie Walter

Performances through November 28, 2010
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a seminal development in British theater, so the world premiere production of Personal Enemy, which Osborne wrote with Anthony Creighton two years before his classic 1956 drama, is the most anticipated event of the current Brits Off Broadway festival.

Set in a small Midwestern U.S. town during the Korean War, Personal Enemy ambitiously links Communism, McCarthy’s witch hunts and homosexuality into a potent if overly melodramatic stew. A mother awaiting the return of her oldest son from Korea—they were earlier told he was dead, not just a POW—finds that her youngest boy may be following in his brother’s footsteps as both a Red and a “pervert.”

In David Aula’s sitcom-ish staging, Personal Enemy comes across as dated. Still, the young playwrights’ anger at what was brewing—neither man had been to the U.S., amazingly—bubbles over in the far better Act II’s climactic speeches. Aside from many wavering accents, the mainly British cast performs impeccably, with the best performances coming from Mark Oosterveen as the brother-in-law and Yank Tony Turner as the father.

Peter Nichols’ Lingua Franca—which focuses on a group of foreigners in mid-1950s Florence who teach Italian children foreign languages—has everything (terrific dialogue, intriguing characterizations, reverberant setting) except a point.

This essentially plotless play dramatizes the flailings and failings of these mostly European teachers (there’s one Australian): the lone Italian, Gennaro, runs the local language classes. Our hero, Steven, is a rough-around-the-edges Englishman given to ogling cute teen female students, reciting bawdy limericks and singing rugby songs in class. He also ignores desperate fellow Brit Peggy’s advances while he’s busy fooling around with blonde Aryan Heidi. Aussie straight shooter Madge and English elder statesman Jestin complete the school’s septet.

Nichols allows these people to explain themselves during several expressive soliloquies, which are played off against their amusing attempts to teach kids to learn the names of utensils in a new tongue; they move about and around each other while aimlessly residing in the cradle of the Renaissance. There’s a perfunctory nod to the end of an old world order, as Nazism and Fascism give way to Communism and—most especially—American democracy. Nichols rather desperately tacks on that last idea following Peggy’s decision to use one of the knives for something more violent than mere classroom instruction.

Excellent acting and direction (by Michael Gieleta) lend more persuasiveness than Nichols’ play probably deserves: still, it’s never condescending to its characters or audience, which in itself is an achievement.

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