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THEATER REVIEW : North Coast Goes 'Abroad,' but Not Far Enough : Richard Nelson's dark and insightful play about American professors living in England loses too much of its bite in the Solana Beach production.

April 30, 1993|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOLANA BEACH — The great ideals of academia seldom find their parallels in the real life of the academics themselves.

It's a truth that Richard Nelson spears mercilessly in "Some Americans Abroad," his play about American professors in England now in a San Diego area premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through May 23. The piece had its U.S. debut at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre in 1990.

Nelson's Americans can quote Shakespeare and Wordsworth with ease but can find little connection between the moral lessons and passions of literature in their own lives--dominated as they are by personal betrayals of trust and anxieties about keeping their pecking order intact.

It's a dark and insightful little tale, but Michael Pieper's direction of the North Coast production suffers from being too soft on the foibles of three major principals--Profs. Joe Taylor, Philip Brown and Frankie Lewis. In Pieper's blunted interpretation, one might suppose that Taylor, chairman of the English department (played sadly and soulfully by Randy Rovang) is well-meaning but inept in the way he handles personal matters.

Nelson's bitter script, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, tells us otherwise. Taylor is more Machiavellian than Shakespearean.

Taylor incurs the wrath of his daughter (Kristen Prewitt), by taking her along on the trip not to experience Shakespeare as she originally believes, but to spy on her friends. He earns the fury of a colleague's wife (Mary Turnberg), when he refuses to tell that colleague (Michael Erger) he's fired--until his replacement is formally signed. And he plays a dangerous game with the life of a student (Jessica Cole) when he tries to buy her silence about Brown's alleged indiscretion.

*

The play's tension should come from the gradual exposure of Taylor as a hollow man. Instead, this production indulges in a soft, rather than tough, focus, muddling and ultimately ending indecisively on the character issue.

And there's the rub. Pieper, a professor at the U.S. International University School of Performing and Visual Arts, brings authenticity to the amusing side of "Some Americans Abroad"--capturing the flavor of the bickering over everything from the reputation of George Bernard Shaw to the divvying of the restaurant bills and tips. Unfortunately, he may be a little too close to the academic life to judge it as harshly as Nelson intended.

*

Roy Guenther Werner charms as the bright but philandering Prof. Brown--as with Rovang, however, the characterization fails to focus sharply enough on the character's failings. Similarly, Suzan Bennett's performance as the philandering Frankie Lewis is too apologetic.

The production itself is characterized by North Coast's usually strong ensemble acting and production values--with a few quibbles.

Resident set designer Marty Burnett turned in his usual fine job, establishing a sense of place in a quickly moving montage of scenes, but the excessive use of slides to depict the company's travels could have been shortened considerably. Bennett's costumes seemed appropriate, but nothing memorable.

* "Some Americans Abroad," North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends May 23. $12-$14. (619) 481-1055. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Randy Rovang: Joe Taylor

Kristen Prewitt: Katie Taylor

Roy Guenther Werner: Philip Brown

Suzan Bennett: Frankie Lewis

George Flint: Orson Baldwin

Pat Dimeo: Harriet Baldwin

Michael Erger: Henry McNeil

Mary Turnberg: Betty McNeil

Jessica Cole: Donna Silliman

Gwendolyne Wagner: Joanne Smith

Ehren Ziegler: An American

A North Coast Repertory Theatre production. By Richard Nelson. Directed by Michael Pieper. Sets: Marty Burnett. Lighting: Peter Smith. Costumes: Suzan Bennett. Sound: Derik Bodkin. Stage manager: Ehren Ziegler.

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