Monday, July 28, 2008

Some Americans Abroad

It's not uncommon for Catherine and I to see a play that's truly cringe-inducing: the kind of play where we're just shaking our heads in disbelief at the events onstage, where we cover our eyes in the hope that these people before us will just go away. What's rare is for the author to have intended for us to feel that way. And rarer still is to have that intention be so beautifully realized in an exceptional production.

The central character in Richard Nelson's Some Americans Abroad is Joe, the newly installed chairman of an Ivy League literature department who is leading a group of students and faculty on an annual theater tour of England. As the first scene began and I listened to the academics argue literary theory over dinner in Covent Garden, I thought, "Oh, it's going to be one of those plays: all talk, no action." And, in a way, I wasn't completely wrong: the action in this piece is Joe's unwillingness to act, and the lengths to which he will go to avoid taking action. Nelson offers us a hero who is a nice guy—a little stuffy and pedantic, perhaps, but likable—placed in a position of leadership without any of the skills he needs to lead. Over the course of the play, we are forced to endure his painful attempts to avoid conflict and direct action in order to preserve his perception of civility among the group.

I've always been resistant to the adage that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else: the suffering of others is, by and large, not very funny to me, even when it's of their own making. I generally prefer humor that values cleverness over stupidity: the Marx Brothers, Noël Coward, the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. In Some Americans, although the characters are undeniably intellectual and the dialogue occasionally sparkling, the humor more often comes in the silences, the hesitations, the avoided questions, the uncomfortable changing of a subject. It's the humor of smart people overthinking simple situations and, with the possible exception of the significant plot point in Act II, I thought it worked well here.

That this kind of humor succeeded for me is, I think, a testament to the exceptional work by director Gordon Edelstein and his phenomenal cast. It's performed on an essentially bare stage with only the set pieces required for each scene used—various tables and chairs, for the most part. As each scene finishes, the actors move the set pieces to different locations agains the upstage wall, leaving us by the play's end with a physical monument to the detritus of the characters' journey. The actors all give wonderful performances but I especially liked Tom Cavanaugh as the unfortunate Joe: he humanized what may be the most irritating character in recent memory and allowed me to keep holding out some hope that this guy would eventually find some backbone.

There were a few times in Some Americans where I came very close to shouting at the characters onstage, "Stop it! You're just making everything worse!" I don't get that caught up in a play very often; it was nice to know that theater, when it's done well, can still get under my skin that way.

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