Monday, August 4, 2008

NYC Trip 2: Some Americans Abroad

I followed my matinee of Gypsy with a less-inspired revival of Richard Nelson's 1989 play Some Americans Abroad, a satirical comedy about American English professors touring with their students to England. The playwright, a former chair of the Yale playwriting program, most notably wrote the books for Chess and James Joyce's The Dead, the play Two Shakespearean Actors, as well as numerous adaptations including many of Chekov's finer works. As an original playwright, however, one wonders if he is simply too cerebral for the American theatre.

Second Stage who has produced the work has gained critical attention by populating the cast with Anthony Rapp and Tom Cavanaugh - two actors whose work is most memorable in Rent and television, respectively. Watching their cinematic performance of a work that lends itself to more virtuosic acting integrity is a bit like watching Keanu Reeves play Hamlet or Katie Holmes attempt Lady MacBeth. In a word, it is star-fucking. This is a practice we have come to associate with Broadway, but when it spreads to Off-Broadway, one can't help but contemplate the role of serious theatre in our over-commercialized and consumerist times.

Both Mr. Rapp and Mr. Cavanaugh deliver substandard performances against the supporting (more fully-trained, more theatrically inclined) deliveries of Corey Stoll and Enid Graham whose performances carry the only gravitas in an otherwise benign production. Their genuine theatricality help convey the story of a romantic tryst among two colleagues (one of them married) while the male counterpart is accused of molesting a student. This plot twist seems a forced device against the thematic satire of the pomposity of academia, the anglophilia of literature professors, and the scrutiny of fidelity and emotion within the cerebral world of "higher" education.

The evening I attended, a significant portion of the audience left at intermission which makes me wonder if it was the play or presentation. Certainly, we have all had experiences of a good play presented poorly, but "good" isn't the first word that springs to mind when contemplating Mr. Nelson's opus. Indeed, one of my fellow audience goers pondered aloud while exiting the theatre, "I just don't understand why that story needs to be told." As one who works and studies in academia, I found the presentation of the pomposity of scholars perfectly adroit. However, the minutiae of a scholarly discourse in the realm of theatre and, thereby, life outside the academy does nothing but highlight the futile quest for scholarly work. Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson's play maybe the perfect example of why those who can do, and those who can't teach.

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