Good Acting, Hollow Americans

Some Americans Abroad by Richard Nelson directed by Carolyn Rendell at the Agassiz Theater thru March 20

Some Americans Abroad is an appropriately imprecise title for such an unfocused play. It describes the experiences of some Americans abroad--nothing more profound than that. The Leverett and Lowell Art Societies' production entertains with its talented acting and direction, but an audience seeking bitter-sweet insight into the national psyche had better look elsewhere.

The play depicts a group of students, professors and spouses from an American university touring England to see various improving plays. But social politics throw the innocent academic holiday into turmoil. The head of the English department has decided to fire an assistant professor, but can't summon the courage to tell him. A student accuses another professor of sexual harrassment. Romantic and platonic tension abounds.

We all like laughing at Americans, and this production gives us ample opportunity to chortle at some completely pathetic specimens. For all their intellectual cultivation, the professors squabble loudly over the tab at restaurants, blatantly betray their sexual indiscretions and generally embarass themselves. The audience cringes at their sycophantic adoration of all things British.

Carolyn Rendell's direction teases the humor out of the play, sparing neither a gasp nor a gawk to illustrate the miserable cultural inadequacy of the American elite. She also knows how to drill her cast: the delivery is snappy, maintaining pace in what might otherwise degenerate into a random sequence of incidents. Rendell marshalls the complicated restaurant scenes brilliantly. Above all, she has an excellent sense of comic timing, and milks the text for all (and more than) it's worth.

But all Rendell's attempts at substance fall flat. She periodically injects clumsy melodramatic flourishes intended to highlight a thoughtful subtext to the play which just isn't there. Towards the end, one character stares out at the audience and pronounces with infinite gravity, "It's time to go home," as if he were impeaching a president. In the final scene, tourists on a bridge turn to face the audience one by one, in time with the resonant chimes of Big Ben, like so many horsemen of the Apocalypse. The play does not have a dark, gritty core, and any ponderous attempts to introduce one are doomed.


This hollow script wastes the cast's talent. Michael Skoler provides a fantastically annoying rendition of the pompous, self-important head of the department, Joe Taylor. Jonathan Weinberg pulls off a creepy portrayal of the randy theater buff Philip Brown with confidence. Erin Scott and Miriam Carroll admirably fulfill the roles of faculty wife and daughter respectively. At times, John Didiuk overdoes the drunken retired professor, Orson Baldwin. But the rest of the cast refrains from the seductive temptation to overact.

The star of the show is Matthew Strack, who plays the geeky, ineffectual, soon-to-be-sacked Henry McNeil. His desperate but entirely inept brown-nosing of Taylor amuses the audience no end. The character does not lend itself to hamming; Strack manages to be both convincing and funny.

Props and effects keep a low profile. Slides conjure up a context for the action, permitting simple, impressionistic sets. This in turn gives full reign to the actors.

This hands-off approach would normally allow a text to speak for itself. But Some Americans Abroad, for all its humor, has little to say.