Saturday, August 9, 2008

The American way

I saw Second Stage Theatre's production of Some Americans Abroad, a 1990 play by Richard Nelson, during its closing weekend. So I didn't think I'd write about it at all: I liked it, I would have recommended it, but what was the point? It was already gone.

Then, however, I read Charles Isherwood's review in the Times, and it gave me what you might call the Isherwood itch. I don't think the Ish is always bitchy or unfair. And sometimes I can see that he's being bitchy, and maybe even unfair, but I don't mind, because I agree with him. But once in a while, more often than I'd like, I read an Ish review and think, Yeesh, what did [name of playwright] ever do to you? (Or, less often: Exactly how big a favor do you owe [name of playwright]?) Especially when he goes after a show for not being something he thinks it should be, or for being something he hates, and completely skips the part where he assesses it for what it is, on its own terms. I suppose all critics, including me, are guilty of that sometimes, but we don't all write for the New York Times. I can go in grumpy and leave grumpy and write a grumpy review for you all about why some show should never have been produced to begin with, but no matter how off-base I am, it won't cut the box office in half. If I knew I had that kind of influence, I'd like to think I would be a bit more scrupulous about being fair and not misrepresenting things and getting up on the right side of the critical bed and all that. Maybe I am taking liberties in assuming Isherwood wrote this review in a bad mood, or with a grudge against Richard Nelson. But I prefer that to the alternative explanation, which is that he honestly did not get what the play is trying to do. What I do know is, when I see a review like that published in the unjustly powerful NYT, it gives me an indignant little rash, and the need to scratch that itch is why I'm writing about the show now in spite of the fact that it already ended its run.

Isherwood reports:
Only frantically Anglophile theatergoers — maybe pathologically Anglophile theatergoers — are likely to derive much joy from this limp two hours of high-toned cultural tourism in the company of uninteresting American academics.
Full disclosure: I am an Anglophile. I admit it. I'm not ashamed of it. I don't think that's the only reason I like this play, however, and I certainly don't think "high-toned cultural tourism" is the only thing, or even the main thing, this play has to offer.

I read Some Americans Abroad a few years ago, when I was helping to copyedit this collection of Nelson's work. It was my favorite play in that volume. I remember being impressed by Nelson's gift for writing dialogue, and for making the simple act of conversation seem so dramatic. Reading and watching Some Americans Abroad, I felt like I was eavesdropping on an actual conversation, watching what the characters reveal about themselves as they talk about whatever it is they happen to be talking about. Not a lot "happens" in many of those conversations, but an enormous amount is revealed, and the way it's revealed feels totally honest to me. There's none of that tortured exposition that makes me cringe. Nelson's characters don't say things like, "How's your older brother, Jack? Does he find it harder to concentrate on being a high-powered lawyer now that he's engaged to marry that woman he met in the Peace Corps?" (At least not in Some Americans -- I haven't read the others in a while.) They're not in a rush to tell us what we need to know.

Maybe that's what Ish is reacting to when he says, "I digress, but then Some Americans Abroad is a talky and digressive play." Talky for sure. Too long, probably. But I wouldn't say "digressive." I think the talk is where the action happens. As for "I digress..." Isherwood is apologizing for a few cute sentences where he went on about how expensive it is to travel to Europe these days. I don't think that's a digression either, because it's the one part of his review I totally agree with: London is really costly these days, and when the characters go on about the great deals they're finding (or the high prices that don't sound the least bit high), it's very distracting. The play is set in 1989. The Playbill says so, but otherwise you wouldn't know: the dialogue doesn't include a lot of clues, the way it would if it were written now and set 20 years ago. The costumes don't suggest that or any period assertively, which is fine; that might be distracting in the other direction. But the production does use supertitles to show us where the various scenes are taking place, and unless I am very much mistaken, the first one didn't say when. Maybe I missed it? It just seems obvious to me that telling us it's supposed to be 1989, not just on paper but in the show itself, would be the obvious way to minimize the weirdness of all the later references to three-pound lunch buffets and so on. But as you may know, this is a constant theme of mine: contemporary plays set in "the present" are usually very much of their time, and if you revive them twenty or more years later you have to pay attention to the time in which they were written. Company doesn't make sense unless it's obviously the 1970s; The Marriage of Bette and Boo has to be clearly set in the 1940s through 80s; Some Americans Abroad can't look like it's happening now. Because otherwise everything rings a bit false, in ways the audience might not even consciously realize.

Okay, there's my digression out of the way. Back to Nelson. He doesn't write a lot of punch lines, either. This play is certainly funny, no matter what Isherwood says, but the laughs are organic, not forced, not false, not calculated. That kind of writing is really hard to pull off, and I feel pretty strongly that it's a gift we ought to encourage when it turns up onstage.

Let's take another line from Isherwood: "If Mr. Nelson’s primary aim is to satirize the tendency of overeducated Americans to worship at the altar of all things English, the comic point is mostly dulled into obscurity in this revival." Is that Nelson's primary aim? Isherwood phrases it as a guess, but I'm not sure he considered the possibility that he's wrong. I think that aim is there, to be sure, and it probably did have a lot to do with this play's success in Britain. I think it's a pretty decent target -- I'll admit it left me feeling a tiny bit ashamed, and I almost get the impression that Nelson has hurt Isherwood's feelings too. And that, I think, may have been his true aim. Not wounding Ish in particular (although we may yet see that play produced), but rather, poking fun at all us self-congratulatory intellectuals. I suspect Nelson wanted to burrow into the subconscious of folks like me, who pride ourselves on being educated, who enjoy feeling smart and cosmopolitan and slightly superior to our countrymen. I'll cop to recognizing that impulse. I can't speak for Ish, since I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him, and for all I know he may be the humblest fellow you could ever hope to meet. So this is purely a guess. But I will venture to guess that the play may have poked him in a similar place, and he didn't appreciate being thus poked.

On a related note, Ish complains that the characters don't seem to have "appealing inner lives." I think that is the point exactly. They have appealing external lives, at least if you (like me) perceive academia, and devotion to literature and drama, as a noble pursuit and a fine way to use one's gifts. Externally they seem to be doing just great. But what lies beneath their superficial sophistication is less noble, a fact that becomes increasingly, uncomfortably clear as the play moves along. Eventually, as a result of a handful of small plot twists, the characters' moral failings and less-than-noble motivations work their way to the surface. You don't even have to be a snob to know what dishonesty looks like, or to recognize the rot that it causes.

To further that point, another quotation from Ish: "No doubt this caricature of a gauche American [the character of Joanne Smith], and the walk-on role of a still more buffoonish Yankee who accosts Joe at the theater, helped endear the play to the British." Perhaps. But I think "An American," as that walk-on role is known, has a subtler function: he's really not so bad. Uncouth, yes, but couthness isn't everything, as we should have learned by now. In fact, this "American" fellow seems sincere and not the least bit snobby. That might be the real reason Joe despises him. And by that point in the play, when we see him standing next to Joe, I think he's more than just a clown for us to laugh at. I think we're meant to look at them together and wonder: Who is it that's ugly? Because I think the real, true point of this play, beyond satirizing academia or poking fun at Anglophiles or having a laugh at the expense of American tourists, is to illustrate that ugly is as ugly does.

There's an awful lot of ugliness in Some Americans Abroad, beneath the surface of every conversation, exposed in little ways that add up slowly and terribly. By the end I found it painful to watch. Those conversations you're observing like a fly on the wall are so transparently superficial and glib and self-serving and vain -- but they still feel like conversations you, or at least I, might have. As an audience member I can see the dynamics at work, but what if I were participating? Would I ever notice when things shifted away from honesty, decency, nobility? Is that happening now, and would I see it if I could only step outside myself? Those aren't comfortable questions, but this play made me ask them, and damn am I impressed by the skill that takes.

The Second Stage production wasn't thrilling, but it was decent. Even a play this talky could have a bit more energy, I think. Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the cast had a tendency to lean on every line, emphasizing as many words as possible, as if they were worried they might accidentally miss something important. I can see how that might happen, since the important stuff is woven so deftly into the dialogue, but they all seemed a little too aware of that process at work. I do agree with Isherwood that the pace was slow -- the play is also too long, I think, which is probably a function of the time when it was written. Things have gotten brisker since 1990. Of the cast, I liked Enid Graham, Halley Feiffer and John Cunningham best. Tom Cavanagh was miscast as Joe -- he seemed like he would have made a better Henry -- and he tended to fall into a repetitive line-reading rhythm, but for the most part he and the others held their ground and let the play do its thing.

Not everyone will like Some Americans Abroad. Not everyone has the patience for theatre that does what this play does. And hell, not everyone really likes plays at all. Even if you can see what Nelson is trying to do, maybe it will leave you cold -- maybe you're not as guilty of the ugliness the play exposes as I know I can be. But I think an intelligent person, especially a person who criticizes theatre for a living, ought to at least be able to perceive what a play is trying to do, even if he then decides it's not doing that thing well. And when a high-profile critic is content to dismiss a carefully constructed, delicately insightful play like this one with the claim that it has nothing but Anglophilia to offer -- well, like I said, it just gives me a rash.

No comments: