Richard Nelsons Some Americans Abroad is a play that shows its age. Thought it was written and first staged in 1990, and is set in 1989, it seems like the product of a different world, and, though it features some terrific performances, George Edelsteins production at Second Stage Theatre does little to transcend this time gap.
The play is about a group of English literature professors from a small unnamed New England college who have been tasked with taking a student study group through literary England, including stops at Shakespeares Stratford-upon-Avon and Henry James Rye. The students antics take place mainly off stage, and instead the play focuses on the professors and their post-theatre discussions, which are usually conducted loudly in public eateries.
But things have changed too much since 1989 for this depiction of Americans as self-indulgent and politically nave to be very amusing. Since Iraq, the stereotypical bumbling, ignorant and loud American has morphed in the public imagination from an amusing caricature, an easy target, to something altogether more sinister and insidious. As the professors argue Shaw versus Ibsen or debate the latest insights into a Shakespearian text, the plays attempts at humor fall short. It was once fun, as Americans, to laugh at ourselves being gently lampooned in this way. But the world no longer views us as buffoons to be tolerated in polite society; we have seen ourselves transformed into the bull in the global china shop, too bellicose to be ignored, too powerful to be restrained. In todays political climate, even gently introspective satire of this kind needs to be far, far sharper.
The plays protagonist is Joe Taylor, the new head of the colleges English department, played by Tom Cavanagh. It is a testament to Cavanagh (best known as TVs Ed and currently in recurring roles in Eli Stone and Scrubs) that, despite his characters moral laxity, he ultimately garners empathy from the audience. His character has the strength of spaghetti, he is oblivious to the human drama around him and will go to lengths to avoid conflict and yet he is still somehow sympathetic.
Other standouts in the cast include Emily Bergl as Betty, the wife of one of the professors, played by Athony Rapp, who is trying to get a contract for one more year of teaching. Bergl brings bitterness and anger to her role, but also allows her demeanor to be occasionally softened by pity; she is capable of expressing a great depth of emotion through a look or a moment of hesitation.
John Cunningham and Pamela Payton-Wright do a fine job of playing American ex-pats retired to Rye. As the previous Head of the English department, Cunningham is expected to provide wisdom to the current crop of professors, but instead he doles out advice about how to cover your butt in the world of academia.
The staging itself was interesting. The minimal sets consisted almost entirely of chairs and tables, which were used to suggest various pubs, restaurants and cafeterias. And, as new props new tables and chairs were brought on for each scene, the leftovers were merely moved to the back of the stage; a metaphor for, depending on your mood, Americans gluttony, and obsession with food over art, or our inability to properly appreciate either. The excess of consumption was complimented by the constant arguing by the professors over small charges in the bills they receive in each venue. Again, this is a humorous device that falls flat in front of a contemporary audience, where the value of the dollar mocks us at every turn.
Despite the all around excellent performances, the play itself just didnt hold up. The world has moved on and whatever slight charm Nelsons play once held, it has been severely diluted.