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A CurtainUp Review
Some Americans Abroad

No, I didnít mean that! I love Stratford. I really do. And the royal Shakespeare Company, itís. . . Itís world famous, isnít it? What more could you want? Itís just . . . — Joanne

Joanne, I know what youíre going to say. — Joe

I donít think you can . . . — Joanne

Youíre going to say, the problem with Stratford is — Well, to be brutally blunt, itís all the Americans. Right? — Joe


Some Americans Abroad
Emily Bergl & Anthony Rapp in Some Americans Abroad (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Richard Nelsonís academic, but by no means elementary, excursion into Anglophilia is making a fine comeback in New York 18 years after it opened at Lincoln Centerís Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater following its London run. Memory is fleeting, but it seems to me that Gordon Edelsteinís direction and the current cast are doing a superior job of finding the heart of this splendidly cerebral play. Either that or I was not, in 1990, fully persuaded that the issues confronting a group of American English literature professors on an exhausting play-a-night fortnight in London and environs were all that involving. An active, observant mind can change, or do we call it a flip-flop?

Both in retrospect and in light of my own advancing maturity, the personal misadventures and misalliances of these self-important, secularized but also insecure, professors reveal a lot about the balance and the politics of power in academia. It also considers with a minimum of convolution and irony the vulnerability of adults when placed in charge and the care of students. One has to not only laugh but also have empathy for Nelsonís band of intrepid theatergoers as they cope with going (as they apparently do every year) to the National Theater, Stratford-on-Avon and other theaters to see a succession plays, particularly lengthy Shakespearean classics.

Those who have done this kind of trip know how the brain eventually begins to curdle from an overdose of Shavian chatter and iambic pentameter. Perhaps Professor Brown (Corey Stall) may, in retaliation, have been inclined to touch a female student in an inappropriate manner. Or is it entrapment? Brownís womanizing tendencies, and that includes an on-going affair with a female professor, also becomes an issue late in the play.

The play is jammed with wit and erudition, so much so that it takes all one can muster to not say "oh, shut up" as Chair of the English department and leader of the pack Joe Taylor (Tom Cavanagh) pontificates obnoxiously to his fellow professors who are sitting around one large table at Luigiís Restaurant in Covent Station. This happens in the first couple of minutes of the play and clearly establishes how the dram ticengine is fueled and by what attitudes and postures it will be continually oiled.

Under Edelsteinís direction the cast is uniformly excellent. They are perceived as a typical mix of recognizable academic types. Because of his position, Taylor has been delegated to give the dedicated but unsuspecting provisional Prof. Henry McNeil (Anthony Rapp) the boot simply because he has a degree from a lesser institution. Another candidate is being offered the job. Emily Bergl is fine as Betty his wife who sees through the subterfuge of the faculty but is helpless to do anything but be as unsparingly blunt as possible.

The action is set in 1989 in various locations, including the buffet court at the Lyttelton, Waterloo Bridge, Arden Hotel, and a Pizza Hut where these talking heads feel the need to defend their reactions to the plays as well as to be condescending to the one among them who truly defines good scholarship. In the playís most corrosive scene, the professors pay a visit to the country home of Orson Baldwin, the retired, now expatriated former head of the department. Baldwin, a man who takes relish in being tactless and judgmental, is played with vile hubris by John Cunningham. Pamela Payton-Wright is excellent as his wife Joanne, whose spurts of blather are funny even as they reveal a poignant commitment to her emphatically fascistic husband.

A disarming Halley Feiffer gives mannerisms and body language a hilarious workout as Joanne Smith, a former student who has since married a well-to-do Englishman. She has been engaged by Joe to purchase the tickets for the group. She also engages us with her bright presence.

Todd Weeks is also amusing as an American insurance salesman who Joe encounters during intermission at the Royal Shakespeare Theater. Fiona Dourif scores as Donna Silliman, the trouble-making student who may or may not proceed to make life difficult for Philip. Cristin Milioti makes a notable impression as Joeís subtly savvy daughter who is inclined to divide her time and allegiance between the adults and the students. Enid Graham scores as Professor Frankie Lewis, who finds herself compromised by an exposed indiscretion.

Michael Yeargan, yjr award-winning designrt for the current revival of South Pacific, keeps the action contained within an unfussy beige frame in which the required tables and chairs are moved on and off with alacrity by the cast. Donald Holderís lighting is everything it should be, particularly during a misty scene on Westminster Bridge.

Having expressed reservations about Nelsonís recently produced plays, including Conversations in Tusculum (at the Public) and Frankís Home (Playwrights Horizons), it is good to reconsider the genuine merits of Some Americans Abroad. Nelsonís play smartly considers the perspective of American academics who feel obliged to keep our cultural connections with a passion, even if it means sitting through a Shakespearean double header. I can assure you that the time will fly with these Americans abroad.

Some Americans Abroad
By Richard Nelson
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Cast: Emily Bergl (Betty McNeil), Tom Cavanagh (Joe Taylor), John Cunningham (Orson Baldwin), Fiona Dourif (Donna Silliman), Enid Graham (Frankie Lewis), Halley Feiffer (Joanne Smith), Cristin Milioti (Katie Taylor), Pamela Payton-Wright (Harriet Baldwin), Anthony Rapp (Henry McNeil), Corey Stoll (Philip Brown) and Todd Weeks (an American).
Costume Design: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada
Production stage manager: Charles M. Turner III
Stage manager: Courtney James
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
Second Stage Theater, 307, West 43rd Street. (212) 246 Ė 4422
Tickets: $70
From 6/25/08; opening 7/24/08; closing 8/03/08
Tuesday at 7 PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 8 PM; Thursday and Friday at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM
Review by Simon Saltzman based on (preview) performance July 1.
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