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Theatre in Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain (59E59)

Dan March. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli.

The Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 kicks off with this concept-comedy attraction that works the wartime cultural differences of Yanks and Brits across a series of sketches. The four writers -- Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan, and John Walton -- never met a joke they didn't like, an attitude that results in a distinctly spotty evening: Some gags amuse, others are groaners, and still others fall into the what-were-they-thinking category. Also, the fun depends on a great deal of audience participation; if humorous interaction with actors makes you break out in hives -- yes, I'm holding up my hand -- this is one to avoid like the plague. If you adore British silliness -- as embodied in the lower-brow Britcoms seen here on PBS or BBC America -- this may be good enough for some laughs.

The show, which is drawn from a real-life publication of the same name issued in 1942, after the US joined the Allies, relies on a highly presentational conceit: The American Lieutenant Schultz -- young, handsome, wisecracking -- and Colonel Atwood --unctuous, overbearing, with a vocal growl that sounds like a jeep stuck in a gravel pit -- have teamed up with the English fussbudget Major Gibbons to give a set of "full cultural training" to an audience of American servicemen who have been bivouacked at "Tollymarch Abbey" in "sleepy Nether Middleton." Such information is, apparently, desperately needed, since, the evening before, the troops spread out through the pubs of Nether Middleton, "Britain's best-kept village in 1936," laying waste to the local gardens and much of the female population.

In its more deadpan moments, the show produces some pretty tasty laughs. Atwood, talking to newly minted pilots, waxes eloquent about his flying experience in World War I: "I remember looking out of my cockpit, looking down at the grass, eight feet below me." Schultz, a former song-and-dance man, is inordinately proud of his Broadway experience and is crushed that nobody in the room remembers his greatest vehicle, Du Barry Was a Lady. Gibbons offers an explanation of British currency that is blissfully impenetrable to anyone who hasn't understood the concept of a farthing since the age of two. In a really surreal sequence, a lesson on "how to behave in a British pub," featuring Schultz dressed up as Gibbons' wife, spins into full-blown psychodrama, laying bare the parlous state of the Gibbons' marriage.

Then again, there are the desperation bits. Introducing Lord Tollymarch, Schultz says, "He's a real-life Lord of the Realm. A Knight of the Round Table. A Queen of the night." And when the drinks hour arrives and Gibbons says "bottoms up," the two Yanks stand up and raise their rear ends. To enjoy Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, you have to roll with the duds.

And so it goes, with something genuinely laugh-provoking followed by something looted from a drawer of disused Benny Hill-Carry On sketches. A side trip to "Nazi spy school" produces an amusing study of British understatement: "Your holiday has been disrupted and your family eaten by cannibals. What do you say?" "That's not very friendly." Then again, you have to put up with overworked accents and Nazi puppets. Next, the original characters reconvene in the village hall, preparing for a surprise visit by Winston Churchill, a scene that cues Gibbons' mother, Margaret, who enters with a cart laden with British snacks and desserts. (This sets up a fine bit about marmite, the foul savory spread that the British adore with their toast.) This scene also allows Margaret, who is vain about her cooking skills, to assert, "You could do worse than get your hands on my spotted dick." We've already seen Gibbons, whose hobby is numismatic pursuits, offering to show his coin collection to those who are "interested in looking at my thrupenny bits...I normally keep them tucked away out of sight -- very rare. But I'm willing to whip them out just for you." Once upon a time, a Dame Edna might have gotten away with routines like these, or maybe the late, great Kenneth Williams. Today, they seem older than World War II.

The cast is certainly enthusiastic, with March doubling as growling Colonel Atwood and the hopelessly fey Lord Tollymarch, and Millard equally plausible as the wise guy Schultz and the impassive, almost frighteningly assured Margaret. Sheahan's Gibbons is solid, whether filling the blackboard with absolute nonsense, demonstrating the art of British froideur -- if you want to engage an Englishman in conversation, we learn, ask about the weather -- or fretting about Mr. Pippin, the popular local furball, who has disappeared up a tree, only to end up as a target for shooting practice. All three are comfortable riffing with audience members -- at the performance I attended, March's Atwood, in a moment of pique, even ordered an elderly man in the second row to throw himself on the floor and do twenty push-ups. Walton's direction keeps things moving, but did no one consider that two hours-plus might be a tad excessive for this kind of sketch-comedy frivolity.

The design credits -> Martin Thomas' scenery and costumes and Jon McLeod's sound design -- are more than acceptable, and the American accents are very good. If standing, stomping, and cheering on the cast while they perform a Morris dance strikes you as the height of fun, look no further. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain unexpectedly underlines the cultural conflict at its core: This is the sort of thing the British find so amusing. Odd people, what? -- David Barbour

(22 April 2019)

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