Playwright: Richard Nelson
At: Remy Bumppo at Victory Gardens
Phone: (773) 871-3000; $28-$33
Runs through: March 21
At the end of Some Americans Abroad, a portrait of a group of pretentious American academics on a literary tour of England circa 1989, I couldn't help but think, 'What a horrible bunch of people.' Playwright Richard Nelson wrote this scathing indictment of academia with a pen dipped in acid. Despite its sharp-edged wit and pointed laugh-at-them, not-with-them character sketches, this is a play that displays some of the ugliest traits of human nature: deceit, selfishness, cowardice, pomposity, and just plain meanness. Credit Nelson with a camera's eye for recording his characters' actions and words. This group has brought its own brand of treachery across the pond. With a schedule crammed so full of theater and culture, there's scarcely a moment available for appreciation, this group still finds time to stab one another in the back, and indulge in the kind of petty intrigues one of their heroes, Henry James, might have had a field day with.
The hateful little group is led by Joe Taylor (Mark Richard), an English department head who is smooth, opinionated, and utterly devoid of backbone. His daughter, Katie (Erin Neal), along for the trip with several other students, realizes—and in her way—accepts her father's shortcomings while giving the audience a chance to breathe while siding with her. The other intellectual misfits include Philip Brown (Mark Montgomery), a lech who is probably guilty of sexual assault on at least one of his students; Henry McNeil (a bearded Aaron Chistensen, who turns in a fragile, layered performance), a fledgling instructor who has made the too-costly trip with his wife, Betty (Wendi Webber, in a flawless performance as a sad wife who must bear the brunt of her husband's denial), in the hopes of forging some camaraderie to save his tenuous position at the university; and the always spot-on Linda Gillum, as Frankie Lewis, a professor who holds more secrets and is more of a snake than she first appears.
Of that final assessment of the characters as a horrible bunch of people, I also couldn't help but think of a Peggy Lee song, 'Is That All There Is?' There's no denying Nelson has the goods when he created this group of people, breathing life into them and skewering them at the same time. Likewise, there's no denying that Remy Bumppo is the kind of theater group who can take material like this and run with it. Yet, I couldn't help wanting more by the end of Some Americans Abroad. As it stands, it's a great portrait, but portraits alone do not make a great play. What a horrible bunch of people, indeed. But then … so what? If that's all there is, my friend, then let's bring out the booze and have a ball. As I left the theater, I couldn't help but think of the irony of that lyric as company members implored patrons to stay for post-show wine.