Newsday, 8 Nov 1995
"'New England's' More Bucolic Than British"
by Linda Winer
NEW ENGLAND. By Richard Nelson, directed by Howard Davies. With Penny Fuller, Larry Bryggman, Tom Irwin, Mia Dillon, T. Scott Cunningham, Allison Janney, Margaret Whitton. Sets by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, lights by Richard Nelson. Manhattan Theater Club, 55th Street west of Sixth Avenue. Seen at Saturday's preview.
It's such a homey place, the Connecticut farmhouse of "New England" at the Manhattan Theater Club, a big, woody haven of open space, warm clutter and the amber light of turning leaves. What a perfect setting, of course, for cultural alienation, family dislocation and the edgy devastations of the uprooted.
All that happens in Richard Nelson's 90-minute play, which opened here last night after a London success in a different production. Unfortunately--surprisingly--all that fails to add up to much.
Nelson, best known as the American playwright with a bigger career in England, would seem to be just the fellow to focus the contradictory emotions in this family-reunion drama about English expatriates in America. After all, his "Some Americans Abroad" did almost the reverse--American tourists on a London theater trip--with such delicate aplomb at Lincoln Center several years ago.
Despite Howard Davies' attractive--if not convincingly English ensemble cast, this is a mild, scattered, mournful little serious comedy that handles unfamiliar characters in extremely familiar ways. It begins with a shock, the onstage suicide of a middle-aged music professor named Harry (Larry Bryggman), who shoots himself in the head in front of Alice (Penny Fuller), his lover, a New York publishing executive who recently moved into his rural home.
Enter his suspicious grown children and his twin brother (Bryggman again) for a long night of little lies, family friction and forced zaniness, complete with predictable revelations about all they did not know about the deceitful deceased and some predictably ambivalent America-bashing.
Nelson, the intelligent and sensitive observer who also wrote the flashier "Two Shakespearean Actors," uses the suicide as a flimsy excuse to bring these English people--and one French wife--together from far-flung parts of the country to muse about their community of outsiders. Strangely, given the richness of such possibilities, the musings are mostly mundane.
Mia Dillon is delightfully vicious as the slick, jealous daughter, also in publishing (add here the joke about the value of an English accent in the profession), who challenges the authority of her father's girlfriend. Allison Janney is engaging as the more open artist daughter from New Mexico. T. Scott Cunningham and Margaret Whitton bring some much-needed heat as the son, an L.A. script reader (imagine the Hollywood jokes), and his manipulative French wife.
Fuller has a plucky strength as the woman who realizes how little she knew about the man in her life, and how little she liked him. Bryggman brings a nice mix of the befuddled and the controlling as both brothers. Tom Irwin is sympathetic as Alice's ex-brother-in-law--an outsider among outsiders. If this guy teaches accents to actors in New York, however, we can understand how they got so bad onstage.
Davies, associate director of the Royal National Theater, has staged such lean, exquisite productions as "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and such overripe ones as the Kathleen Turner revival of "Cat on a Tin Roof.". This one is clean but almost as emotionally diffuse as the play. Santo Loquasto's farmhouse set, however, is so handsome we find ourselves disengaging--further--from characters who could walk so easily away.
Copyright 1995, Newsday Inc.
The New York Times, November 8, 1995
by Vincent Canby
Richard Nelson's "New England," which opened last night at the Manhattan Theater Club, is a comedy of mixed heritage about trans-Atlantic manners.
Mr. Nelson, an American playwright ("Two Shakespearean Actors" and "Some Americans Abroad," among others), is less well known at home than he is in London, where "New England" was given a production of stinging wit this year by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Though the setting is a farmhouse in western Connecticut, seven of the eight characters are English, six of them members of the same family.
For one reason and another, each has drifted into permanent residency in the United States, about which they share hypocritical, mostly condescending feelings. They're aliens of privilege, pursuing careers on the fringes of publishing, theater, films, art and academe. They are America's newest WASP's, arrived at a time when white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance is over.
"New England" never says it, but these characters were superfluous even before they arrived, which is one of the things that so amused the play's London audiences.
The occasion that brings the family together is the funeral of Harry Baker, a music teacher at a small community college, the first member of the clan to leave England, in his case apparently to escape an alcoholic wife 20 years before. Seen only briefly at the beginning of the play, Harry exerted a strong but miserable influence over everyone who knew him. In particular: Alice Berry, his mistress, who gave up a career in publishing to live with him in Connecticut; his daughters Gemma, a painter living in New Mexico, and Elizabeth, a New York editor; his son Paul, who reads scripts for a studio in Hollywood, and Harry's twin brother Alfred, a professor of literature at the University of New Mexico.
Also participating in what turns out to be two days of highly literate, leisurely, sometimes funny internecine battles are Sophie, Paul's emotionally needy, French-born wife, and Tom Berry, Alice's young former brother-in-law, who makes his living in New York teaching ungifted American actors how to speak with English accents.
"New England," played without intermission, is bold in its form: the climax comes in the first scene. The next seven scenes are an extended coda, not so much to Harry's life as to the British-American culture gap and to a world made orderly by distinctions of class and education.
Because it has no clearly defined narrative line and because its characters are interesting principally for the attitudes they express, "New England" demands an expert ensemble performance. This is not the sort of play that can be carried by one or two actors. Everyone has to mesh seamlessly. Howard Davies, the production's English director, has assembled a first-rate cast of American actors who, for a change, handle their English accents without fear or desperation.
Larry Bryggman is exceptionally good in the dual role of the soon-to-be-dead Harry and his brother, Alfred, who, though the oldest surviving member of the family, is also the most expansive and spontaneous Baker. Penny Fuller is excellent as Harry's de facto widow, a woman of some guts, undeterred and even amused by the children's suspicions of her as a greedy outsider.
Also fine are Mia Dillon as Elizabeth, the more aggressive daughter; T. Scott Cunningham as the wife-obsessed son, Paul, and particularly Allison Janney as the elder daughter, Gemma. In a play in which virtually all emotion must be expressed in nuance, Ms. Janney's performance is the most moving. But then the determinedly serene Gemma may also be the play's most fully written role. Tom Irwin, who plays Tom Berry, the observer of this family's mourning revels, and Margaret Whitton, as the horrendous Sophie, are faultless.
Yet the production itself seldom seems less than heavy. In part, I suspect, this is because Mr. Davies has followed the stage directions (contained in the published edition of the play) with more fidelity than grace. Mr. Nelson would seem to be the most insecure of playwrights. He doesn't trust the actors to find their own rhythm. Every page of his text is studded with commands to "pause," to take a "beat," to speak "over" or at the "same time" as the previous speech.
Left to their own devices, these actors might sail along with the blithe spirit I remember from the London production. Here the pauses, beats and overlapping dialogue have a way of stopping the play as effectively as a contagion of recurring hiccups. Mr. Davies has made other choices, small and big, that appear to be unpardonable. As Harry and Alfred, Mr. Bryggman is forced to wear what appear to be two different hairpieces that simply don't fit. They rivet the eye. The text calls for the use of Debussy's "Girl With the Flaxen Hair," during the play but not, I think, at a volume that makes it sound like a soundtrack score.
Some of these problems may be worked out as the run continues. The production has been handsomely designed by Santo Loquasto and lighted by Richard Nelson, who is not related to the playwright. It deserves such care. "New England" is a work of intelligence and wit. In this country especially, the staging must be as exact as the writing (excluding stage directions) if it is not to seem distant and impertinent.
Copyright 1995 The New York Times Company