Some Americans Abroad
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 19, 2008
When Richard Nelson's Some Americans Abroad was first produced in 1990—originally by England's Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently by Lincoln Center Theater —it was a satire of its own historical moment, when American academia seemed to be under an analytical spotlight, on the cusp of the endless 1990s debates about "political correctness" and the rest of the "culture wars." Its American characters—students and professors abroad on a university trip to London, Stratford, and many, many plays—are shown to be at various moments pompous, experts at conflict avoidance to the point of outright cowardice, self-serving, obsessed with saving pennies, snobbish, and at their worst either transparent hypocrites or unabashedly politically incorrect fuddy-duddies. There's a lot of academic debate, some of it good-natured and some of it purely one-up-manship; some reciting of poetry; a lot of negotiation over the paying of fair shares of dinner checks and appropriate tipping; there are several intense and self-reflexive discussions about the place of politics in the theatre. Much of this is smartly written, charming, amusing—but given the increased challenges and pressures Americans face abroad these days, at a cultural moment when one must surrender one's liquids even to get on an international flight, when fuel prices are skyrocketing and the American dollar very weak, and when a global suspicion of America's politics can all too easily tip over into a global suspicion of Americans, the play's gentle mockery of the foibles of a small slice of intelligentsia seems almost absurdly lightweight.
The play's action occurs on a theatre excursion for undergraduates, officially chaperoned by three members of the English department—new chairman Joe Taylor, waffling constantly between declaiming his opinions and defending his turf; and Philip Brown and Frankie Lewis, both tenured faculty members who take advantage of these excursions to conduct a not-very-clandestine affair (he's single and she's married, in their day-to-day lives). There in an unofficial capacity is Henry McNeil, a younger adjunct professor who isn't quite good enough for a tenured job (his degree is only from Case Western, after all); he's paid his own way on this trip to try to angle his way into at least one more year of a teaching contract before the vagaries of the job market force him to the last resort of teaching high school.
Some family members are also part of the entourage—Henry's wife Betty, a straight-shooter who seems to be as much a part of the department as Henry is, and who perhaps knows the score much better than Henry does; Joe's daughter Katie, an undergraduate in her father's department uneasily moving back and forth between socializing with her student friends and her father's colleagues.
We meet a few figures on the periphery as well: first, the almost unimaginably pompous former chair Orson Baldwin, now retired to England with his wife Harriet; none of the current faculty present seems to respect or admire Orson all that much, but they feel obliged to defer to him from force of habit. Next, Joanne, a former student of Joe's who now lives in England herself and has helped them arrange tickets; Joanne, an American permanently abroad, serves as the ideal witness to the way the travelers would like to be seen—witty, charming, more sophisticated by far than, say, the poor schmo (identified only as "An American") who asks to borrow Joe's Troilus and Cressida program during the interval at Stratford. And finally, there's Donna Silliman, the problem student of the trip, who skips plays, disappears from her room to hang out with her boyfriend (an Amherst student on a similar trip of his own), and in attempting to get out of one of her scrapes, becomes the catalyst for a potential crisis and scandal that is swiftly quashed by Joe's maneuvering. In the end, the play (and presumably the trip) closes much as it opened, over dinner in a Covent Garden Italian restaurant, with the squabbles and dramas of the recent weeks already fading into nostalgia and the plans for next year.
Whatever my qualms about the play's relevance, Second Stage's production is lovely—crisply acted, beautifully designed, elegantly staged. Michael Yeargan's set is an airy, bright, neutral space that's filled for each scene with a different array of specific and realistic furniture and props—a big restaurant table strewn with napkins and half-full wine glasses, a few wing chairs and an end table from a hotel sitting room; garden furniture set for tea at Orson and Harriet's country house; a bookshop table crammed full of browsable paperbacks—against a cyclorama lit (by Donald Holder) in a different color scheme for each location. As the play proceeds, the discarded furniture of scenes past accretes along the upstage wall, so all of the minutiae of the trip build up across the length of the play, shrinking and cluttering the playing space as the characters' internal tensions and conflicts build. And although each scene is built around anchoring furniture and thus confined to a specific playing area, Gordon Edelstein's staging never feels curtailed or static; rather, scenes build to striking tableaus.
The cast, a smoothly meshing ensemble of 11, is also full of little pleasures to watch: Tom Cavanagh's self-justifying slickness as Joe and John Cunningham's relish in his old-fashioned bigotry as Orson; Corey Stoll's frequent insertion of foot in mouth as Phil and Halley Feiffer's determined and clueless cheerfulness as Joanne; Cristin Milioti's determined guarding of her boundaries as Katie and Emily Bergl's throwing caution to the wind and saying what she really thinks as Betty.
But the play still feels too gently satiric in a world that's almost unimaginably more technologically connected, globalized, and in many ways ominous than it was 20 years ago. I enjoyed myself for two hours on a summer afternoon, but kept wanting the play to have more to say, or at least more pointed questions to ask.