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Glenda Frank

"Some Americans Abroad "by Richard Nelson. Directed by Gordon Edelstein.
At Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43 St., NYC.
July 22 - Aug. 13, 2008.
Tues. at 7; Wed. - Sat. at 8 PM; Wed. and Sat. at 2 PM; and Sun. at 3 PM. Tickets: $15 (rush)-$ 70.00. Discounts for students and seniors.
(212) 264-4422, (800) 766-6048 or www.2ST.com.
Group sales: (212)889-4300 or (800) 331-0472.

Student tales of class trips abroad are full of drunken adventures, sexual hook-ups, mysterious disappearances and cultural discoveries. Richard Nelson's "Some Americans Abroad," in a stellar revival at Second Stage Theatre, turns the tables by taking on the teachers' perspective of the trip. This dark comedy of manner, this satire with a poignant heart, slowly reveals the secrets of these academics, and we discover how precarious, stressful and cruel life can be in an ivory tower. The delicate balance between parody and the human condition makes this production of "Some Americans Abroad" a summer highlight.

Joe Taylor (Tom Cavanagh), the new head of the English department, is still feeling his way into the job. He and several teachers are leading a group of students who are attending more performances of classical theatre than anyone can tolerate. A tea at the Baldwins' shows us the retired chairperson, a blunt man who drinks too much and probably had his way with undergraduates. He still demands flattery and obedience, and he has trained the department well. Throughout, they all toady up to Joe with an obvious insincerity that he is blind to in his blunderings and arrogance. He travels with his daughter (Cristin Milioti), whom he loves but uses to spy on other students.

Joe and his colleagues must field two crises. Henry McNeil (Anthony Rapp) will not receive tenure and must leave the college at the end of the semester. He does not know. Everyone likes him and admires his teaching, but he received his doctorate from a minor university. Someone has to tell him. Joe tries but can't. Meanwhile Henry is desperate to please. His wife (Emily Bergl), who either suspects or knows the truth, must sit back and watch. She is filled with rage.

More challenging to Joe is Donna Silliman (Fiona Dourif), the student who has vanished. She is trouble She worries everyone, then reappears with a story about being befriended then dumped by a boy from Amherst College in its trip abroad. She accuses Professor Philip Brown (Corey Stoll) of touching her inappropriately. They all know it's a trumped-up charge, but they cave in to the blackmail to avoid complications, offering her a passing grade although she has done no work, buying her dinners, and acting sympathetic. Philip, confused during questioning, confesses instead to his affair with Frankie (Enid Graham), a married professor. All the dirty laundry comes out.

In the hands of director Gordon Edelstein, the comedy has sharp teeth – the jokes, the parodies, the satire, the ironies. None of these characters are likable but in bits and pieces they are us, so we connect here and there. Or we sit back and sneer. The situation itself is intolerable – back to back Shakespeare and Shaw plays, a watch-dog administration, the currying for favor, and everyone's fear of making a mistake. But they are gladly in it together, with McNeil fighting to stay on.

Michael Yeargan’s sets are mostly a variety of tables and chairs for the English department members to dine or drink. They become an odd calendar of so many meals together, so many conversations, cluttering the rear of the stage and the memory. Donald Holder varies the background colors so we always know when the locale has shifted. The minimalism keeps the action quick and focused – like the play itself as it delves deeper and deeper into the characters.

"Some Americans Abroad" was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and became a hit in London in 1989. It was picked up by Lincoln Center in 1990. Nelson said about the play: "It's about how we act, how we behave, how we try to deal with problems in our lives - and often very unsuccessfully. And in this case, these people are in a foreign place, and the awkwardness and the self-consciousness that we all usually have in a foreign place are very useful in developing [the] comedy.''

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