Some Americans Abroad
Richard Nelson's satire about a group of pretentious academics traveling in London gets a spotty revival at Second Stage.
Neither director Gordon Edelstein nor most of his less-than-ideally chosen cast manage to find much of the humanity in Nelson's troubled troupe, leaving audiences with the problematic experience of spending over two hours with a group of unpleasant and somewhat pathetic people. Just as the show's central character, Joe Taylor (Tom Cavanagh) desperately wishes to escape from the overexuberant tourist (Todd Weeks, providing a dash of comic relief) he encounters at Stratford-Upon-Avon, some audience members will find themselves in the same metaphorical situation, hoping to find a polite way to get away from Joe and his confreres.
A man far more comfortable waxing poetic on Shakespeare, cutting down Shaw, and espousing passionate (if simplistic) opinions on world politics, Joe -- the newly-appointed chairman of the never-named college's English department -- just isn't all that good with people. That fact becomes painfully clear as Joe leads the college's annual theater trip to England, in which Shakespeare, Shaw, and Simon Gray eventually end up taking a back seat to offstage drama.
Joe must deal with a crisis with a wayward student, Donna Silliman (Fiona Dourif); the not-entirely-welcome presence of Henry McNeil (an extremely fine Anthony Rapp), an eager-to-please professor Joe has to fire before next semester, and his bitter, unhappy wife Betty (a far-too-churlish Emily Bergl); the revelation that his two colleagues and close friends Philip (an almost thuggish Corey Stoll) and Frankie (a nicely pragmatic Enid Graham) are having an adulterous affair; and his own daughter Katie (an effective Cristin Milioti), now one of his students, whom he too often puts unwittingly in the middle of his messes.
In Nelson's circular structure -- the play begins and ends with group dinners in the same Covent Garden restaurant -- it's sadly evident that Joe hasn't changed much despite his misadventures. Still, Cavanagh's surprisingly monotonous and mostly unconvincing portrayal does little to illuminate any of Joe's interior struggles or subtle transformations.
Indeed, the characters who make the most vivid impressions here are the most subsidiary ones: the department's former chair Orson Baldwin, a boorish, bigoted alcoholic, pricelessly portrayed by John Cunningham; his kinder, clearer-eyed wife Harriet, endearingly embodied by Pamela Payton-Wright; and Joanne, Joe's former student who's become a semi-bored British housewife, brought to exuberant life by Halley Feiffer.
There's also a certain fascination in watching set designer Michael Yeargan deliberately let all the tables, chairs, benches, and other pieces pile up on stage behind the characters, signaling both the increasing messiness of the trip and creating a visual memento of their travels. (The remainder of the top-notch creative team, costumer Jennifer von Mayerhauser, lighting designer Donald Holder, and sound designer John Gromada, all acquit themselves well enough.)