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Adopting a superior pose

The comedy 'US and Them' probes the special but fraying relationship between Britons and Americans.

June 29, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

London — Lately, world politics have been cropping up in various guises in the London theater -- from the West End hit "The Madness of George Dubya" to the Iraq references in Nicholas Hytner's production of "Henry V" at the National Theatre. Meanwhile, a sharp new comedy at the Hampstead Theatre in North London, "US and Them," explores the complex dance of friendship and the battle of egos between the British and the Americans.

As a critic for the Times of London wrote, "Relations between Britain and America have never been better -- and never worse. Britons have not hated Americans so passionately since 1776. Americans are Britain's beloved allies."

"US and Them" is not a political manifesto, however, but a comedy of manners. And in its bourgeois universe, the "us" and the "them" have as much to do with the divisions between men and women, husbands and wives, and parents and children, as with those between nations. Nevertheless, director Jennie Darnell says that by dissecting the souring friendship between a British and an American couple-- whose twentysomething children end up running off together -- "US and Them" illuminates not how we are separated, as the adage goes, by a common language, but how we are united by our competing senses of superiority.

"What I've always enjoyed about the play is that it takes two cultures who both feel superior for different reasons and puts them next to each other," Darnell says one morning in the theater's light-filled cafe. When Brits Martin (Hugh Bonneville) and Charlotte (Siobhan Redmond) and Americans Ed (Matthew Marsh) and Lori (Harriet Walter) first meet, they are enchanted by one another's superficial charms and struck by how much they seem to have in common, leaving their kids to make jokes about such cliches as bad English teeth and American incompetence at geography. But the play chronicles their subsequent falling-out with a complicated regard that led one London reviewer to call the relationship "vexed" and another to describe it as "doomed."

"I started writing the play about 18 months ago, and it became clear to me that there is no dramatic virtue in comparing a redneck, Bush-supporting American with a liberal English person," playwright Tamsin Oglesby says by phone. "That's too easy. That's the stuff of satire, and it lasts five minutes and it's very satisfying -- like candy -- and ultimately, the people who like it I think are converted anyway."

Instead, Oglesby took upper-middle-class people from both sides of the Atlantic and portrayed them slowly driving one another mad, but not for the usual reasons.

"I really wanted to transpose what we might rather smugly think of being English characteristics with American characteristics, whilst remaining true to both countries and true to the characters," she says. "So the English couple are not intellectual and cultured and sophisticated and urbane by any means. And I wanted to give the Americans a much larger degree of intellectual and philosophical breadth than we generally think that Americans have, to be honest."

The Americans in Oglesby's play do not come off as ignorant or unworldly or unquestioningly nationalistic, just as pious, over-manicured, rule-bound ideologues bent on making a buck -- while their sex and family lives fade eerily into the background. Although Americans are routinely called racist by their European friends, it's the English character of Martin who is racist here, mistaking a Korean American for a Japanese man and using race as an insult when he doesn't get his way with shopkeepers and the like.

While the Americans are painted in the play as generous, hospitable and openhearted, the Brits are (albeit witty and human) hypocrites who fall in love with the smell of money on their first visit to the Americans' lush New York apartment and will do anything to court the people who might help them make a bundle of their own.

The play begins with the American couple announcing to their British friends that they plan to end the friendship. It then proceeds to trace the history of the fallout in flashback. At first, the earnestness with which the Americans seek to end the relationship is as much a source of irony as the hypocritical nature of the British, who choose to deal with such messy emotions behind their friends' backs. But by the end, the Brits are accusing the Americans of "dropping bombs on everyone who isn't like you," of living in a country run according to an "arbitrary set of self-regulating, self-serving made-up laws that allow rich people to get away with murder while everyone else has to watch them on television," and of failing to see that Sept. 11 was a demonstration that America's actions have "consequences."

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