Monday, July 22, 2013

Some Americans Abroad – Oh, the Humanities!

The cast of Some Americans Abroad at HART Theatre.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
HART Theatre’s current production, Some Americans Abroad, is an often humorous but curiously unsettling exploration of some of the characters, conventions, and pretensions of a (presumably Ivy League, but unnamed) university English Department. Playwright Richard Nelson clearly knows his subject well, but for the audience it sometimes seems like a series of black and white New Yorker cartoons linked by a parody of high-toned and obscure literary criticism and intellectual dishonesty.

Set in England during one of those ubiquitous summer education programs meant to inoculate undergrads with culture by immersing them in classic theater, the show revolves around (a) the plight of lecturer Henry McNeil, one of the program chaperones who is on the verge of non-reappointment (what, in the non-academic world is called “being fired”), (b) the cowardly angst of Department Chair Joe Taylor, who takes the easiest short-term path by lying to Henry about his impending fate, (c) the temporary disappearance of student/tour participant Donna Silliman, who ditches several plays to hang with a newfound love from Brown (until he goes off to Paris with his actual girlfriend), (d) Silliman’s ploy to earn a passing grade by claiming to have been groped by another professor, Philip Brown, and (e) Brown’s affair with yet another professor, Frankie Lewis. The white-knuckle drama is heightened by some truly frightening revelations – McNeil’s Ph.D. is from (gasp) Case Western Reserve University (buried as it is in the heart of flyover country, how good can it be?), McNeil has promising job opportunities, but at the high school level (oh, the humanity!), Joe and Philip are at serious odds on the value of George Bernard Shaw’s oeuvre (can you feel the tension now?), and McNeil has overpaid a car rental company by (gasp again) five pounds! Out of the Department’s budget! Add in the failure of former department chair Orson Baldwin to formally invite McNeil and his wife to visit their home in the English countryside and you have the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Director Stephen Kelsey acknowledges in his notes that the show is “driven by more character than plot” – thus, casting the right actors is key, and Kelsey most definitely has done just that. Joe Taylor (Jim Crino) might seem, to those unfamiliar with academia, to be an exaggeration – but we have known humanists just that self-centered, hypocritical, and domineering. Crino succeeds in making us thoroughly despise Taylor – job well done! Tom Witherspoon plays McNeil as a wide-eyed innocent willing to accept his colleagues’ covert disdain, hoping against hope that he can retain his job by being thoroughly unobjectionable. We are told repeatedly that “everybody likes Betty” (McNeil’s wife, played by Angela Michtom) and we could not agree more. Michtom brings emotional strength and honesty to her role, and has more cojones than all of the male characters in the cast put together. Maille O’Brien’s portrayal of Frankie Lewis is comparably strong; although she is betraying her husband, she shows a fiery loyalty to her paramour, Brown. Despite the contradictions in her character, O’Brien gives a clear and concise interpretation and remains likeable throughout. Dan Kroon’s reading of Brown makes it difficult to see what inspires this loyalty – his constant arguments with best friend Taylor are studies in small-mindedness.

The remainder of the cast bring strong backgrounds to the show. Of particular note – Dalene Young’s portrayal of Harriet Baldwin is attractively quirky as she remains pleasantly disconnected from the academic politics swirling around her. Tourists Ilana Watson and Brandon B. Weaver embody the stereotype of the Ugly American – but perhaps could rein in their enthusiastic boorishness a bit.

This is a short engagement, so next weekend will be the last opportunity for Anglophiles, literary critics, and lovers of droll character study to see this rarely performed work.

Some Americans Abroad runs through Sunday, July 28th, at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro.

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