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Pretentious academics skewered in Hillsboro

Humorous but unsettling play offers strong cast


by: COURTESY PHOTO: HART THEATRE - (Left to Right) Tom Witherspoon as Henry McNeil, Dan Kroon as Philip Brown, Jim Crino as Joe Taylor, Angela Michtom as Betty McNeil, Brianna Sehorn as Katie Taylor and Maille OBrien as Frankie Lewis try to navigate London -- and rocky interpersonal dynamics -- at HART Theatre this weekend. HART Theatre’s current production, "Some Americans Abroad," is an often humorous but curiously unsettling exploration of some of the characters, conventions, and pretensions of a (presumably Ivy League, but unnamed) university English department.

For the audience it sometimes seems like a series of black and white New Yorker cartoons linked by a parody of high-toned and obscure literary criticism and intellectual dishonesty.

Set in England during one of those ubiquitous summer education programs meant to inoculate undergrads with culture, the show revolves around (a) the plight of lecturer Henry McNeil, a program chaperone who is on the verge of non-reappointment ("being fired" in non-academic language); (b) the cowardly angst of department chairman Joe Taylor, who lies to Henry about his impending fate; (c) the temporary disappearance of student/tour participant Donna Silliman, who ditches several plays to hang with a newfound love (until he goes off to Paris with his actual girlfriend); (d) Silliman’s ploy to earn a passing grade by claiming to have been groped by another professor, Philip Brown; and (e) Brown’s affair with yet another professor, Frankie Lewis.

Director Stephen Kelsey acknowledges in his notes that the show is “driven by more character than plot” — thus, casting the right actors is key, and Kelsey most definitely has done that. Joe Taylor (Jim Crino) might seem, to those unfamiliar with academia, to be an exaggeration — but we have known humanists just that self-centered, hypocritical and domineering.

Tom Witherspoon plays McNeil as a wide-eyed innocent willing to accept his colleagues’ covert disdain, hoping against hope that he can retain his job by being thoroughly unobjectionable.

We are told repeatedly that “everybody likes Betty” (McNeil’s wife, played by Angela Michtom) and we could not agree more. Michtom brings emotional strength and honesty to her role, and has more cojones than all of the male characters in the cast put together.

Maille O’Brien’s portrayal of Frankie Lewis is comparably strong; although she is betraying her husband, she remains likeable and shows a fiery loyalty to her paramour, Brown.

Dan Kroon’s reading of Brown makes it difficult to see what inspires this loyalty — his constant arguments with best friend Taylor are studies in small-mindedness. And Dalene Young’s portrayal of Harriet Baldwin is attractively quirky as she remains pleasantly disconnected from the academic politics swirling around her.

This rarely performed work is perfect for Anglophiles, literary critics, and lovers of droll character study.

A longer version of this review is online at westsidetheatrereviews.blogspot.com.



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