KPBS AIRDATE: April 28, 1993
Okay, haul out all your favorite stereotypes of academics — specifically, English professors. Check your list; do you have: stodgy? pedantic? petty? narrowly focused? spineless? dry? passionless but lecherous? cheap? Well they’re all there in “Some Americans Abroad,” a play by Richard Nelson having its San Diego premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.
So we already know all that about English professors. And maybe it’s all heightened when they happen to be together for a course they’re teaching in England. Stratford seems to bring out the worst in them. Culture and history are lost on them; they’re knee-deep in departmental politics and pseudo-intellectual argument. But what else is new? Nothing much, in this production.
Every play has a text and a subtext. What you hear from the actors’ mouths is the text. Everything else — the motivations and intentions, the past, the underlying emotions, in short, the inner life of the play and the characters — comprises the subtext.
Unfortunately, Michael Pieper has either allowed or directed his actors to play only the text. On the narrow strip of North Coast Rep’s stage, in a set, by the way, beautifully designed by Marty Burnett, we don’t get the darkness of this comedy of manners. And we don’t get too much of the comedy or satire, either.
These are timorous wimps, even geeks. Because they aren’t fleshed out, we can’t even begin to see ourselves in them. And we don’t begin to sense the underlying foment behind the relationships. One faculty member is sleeping with another, but it seems like the chairman would like to be sleeping with her, too. A lost piece of subtext. And we don’t get anything much about the real relationship between the chairman and his daughter or his offstage wife, between the daughter and her classmate who runs off with an Amherst boy for a night, among the various faculty members or the married teachers and their mates.
This isn’t an ensemble; it’s a collection of actors. I’ve seen a number of them elsewhere and they can put depth into a character. But not here. We don’t identify with these people, and we should. We don’t feel very much for them, either. Awkward moments abound, in the script and on the stage, and they’re played repeatedly by everyone looking down or looking elsewhere. The short scenes are made even choppier by being interspersed with a pointed song and a few family-photo slide projections of English tourist sights and cast members. Nice idea but it takes away rather than adding to the piece.
What seethes beneath the pedantry is what we need to know. And precisely what we do not see. All eleven actors are speaking their lines, clearly and convincingly. But if anyone’s running an interior monologue, I sure couldn’t tell.
This is Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.