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Some Americans Abroad

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Enid Graham, Corey Stoll, Pamela Payton-Wright, John Cunningham, Halley Feiffer, Tom Cavanagh, Emily Bergl, and Cristin Milioti.
Some Americans Abroad

So anxious was Richard Nelson to define the satirical outlook of his comedy Some Americans Abroad, he couldn't resist doing so in the very first scene. "A schematic argument is sometimes the best way to present a complex moral position" crows Joe Taylor, the chairman of a New England college's English department, as he and his colleagues dine at a typical Italian restaurant in the typical British locale, Covent Garden, they're visiting on their typical annual winter theatre trip to Old England.

The line comes as part of a softball political debate, one of many Joe finds himself immersed in - or, more likely, immersing others in. But if it immediately sets the stage for Nelson's affectionately biting take-down of long-winded, short-attention-span academics, it sets up another problem for the new Second Stage revival that just opened under Gordon Edelstein's direction: A schematic revival is usually the worst way to present a complex play.

So diagrammatic is every aspect of this production, from the performances (beginning with Tom Cavanagh's as Joe) to Edelstein's direction to the design, you're left with the kind of pen-and-ink specificity that illustrates everything except the meaning of what you're watching. If one of the vicarious pleasures of Some Americans Abroad is watching ostensibly high-minded, liberal Northeasterners behave like low-minded fools while immersing themselves in high culture, that's the first thing to be sucked away here.

The process begins early, also in the very first scene, when that dinner-table discussion illuminates little more than everyone's barest archetypes. Joe's sparring partner is Philip (Corey Stoll), gruff and energetic but always just stifling his primal urges (in this case, to smack Joe across the face). Frankie (Enid Graham), is drawn and distant, involved but not really until life invades her own sensitive space. Henry and Betty McNeil (Anthony Rapp and Emily Bergl) are inside outsiders, removed from the particulars and fading into the background despite being the most sensible and knowledgeable in view.

Clearly delineated eccentricities are crucial, so that as the group progresses on its tour, you see how the destructive contrast between them and the beauty they're mindlessly absorbing. Locales such as the National Theatre and Stratford-Upon-Avon bespeak a rich history these snobbish elitists comprehend only in passing; their forging in the fires of academia, as coupled with their acute Anglophilia should provide no shortage of entertainment. And as the plot unfolds with increasing seriousness, they should be revealed for the dangerous souls they are.

But hardly anyone in this production possesses the comic necessity to send you into chortles of recognition one moment, or the blasé emotional cluelessness that should provoke cheek-heating embarrassment at the amusement you just showed. When the group's bickering over bills and complaining about the length of Shakespeare fades away and is replaced by concerns moral (one student's off-itinerary cavorting), educational (Henry's being booted from the tenure track), and legal (no-winking accusations of sexual assault), what's at stake should be more clear than ever.

It's not. Edelstein has guided his company to neither parodic highs nor pathetic lows, which results in a flat, uninvolving evening. The spit-shined brochure look of the production, especially Michael Yeargan's sketchy souvenir-scenery sets and Donald Holder's pinpoint lighting, adds a too-creamy texture to a work that exists only for the purpose of letting you savor its lumps. You want to laugh with and at a group whose members are helplessly going through the motions in their lives, without understanding the impetus of each any more than the plays they insist on seeing (yet never seem able to remember).

Such laughs, though, also aren't readily evoked by schematic arguments - or performances. Cavanagh is so flighty and disconnected, you don't believe at the outset he could ascend to a position of authority - thus making explicit, and unfunny, exactly that implicit concern. Graham's lip-biting nervousness and Stoll's acridly outgoing manner borrow too heavily from later events, robbing their characters of the surprises that are their only identifying features. Rapp and Bergl are so understated they're almost invisible, offering no clue as to how Henry and Betty are playing others. Most of the other performers, including Cristin Milioti as Joe's daughter and Fiona Dourif as the secret-bearing, skip-away student, are earnest to a fault, as flawless-looking as they'd like to believe they are when they should be anything but.

Only John Cunningham, as a retired processor who maintains strong ties to the department, commands sufficient attitude and timing to unleash withering words and phrases with the bracing force Nelson's dialogue demands. You see and hear in him what you should get from everyone: a bravura braggadocio who's lived his entire life according to precepts that define conventional rationality.

You believe him because you believe that he believes them. Everyone else seems to be in on the joke, trying to prevent themselves and their characters from becoming the joke. Yet there's no surer way to spoil a joke, which happens time and time again among what should be the perpetually ripe targets of this Some Americans Abroad.

Some Americans Abroad
Through August 3
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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