Judy Klass's Transatlantic has grand intentions - few plays would bother to invoke British philosopher John Stuart Mill and his relationship with proto-feminist Harriet Taylor (platonic, yet it still shocked Victorian England). But this attempt at a comedy of manners, filmmaking, and clash of cultures was not thought-provoking, insightful, or funny.
The cultures clashing were between Americans Bernie and Lori Greenfield and Brits Fiona and Nicholas Thorpe. Fiona (Melanie Kuchinski) has a film script that's literate, thoughtful, and esoteric (the aforementioned Mr. Mill and Ms. Taylor) - but no money. Bernie (Paul Weissman) offers a production deal, but with the requisite script changes and casting obligations. She hates pushy Americans; he hates the snobbish English. Her husband Nick (Johnny Blaze Leavitt) defers to her, and his wife Lori (Valerie David) not only gushes inanely but also is an Anglophile.
From the beginning, Transatlantic is overly expositional. Bernie and Lori talk about their relationship problems and character flaws as if it's new information, but it's stuff they would have covered long ago. His inferiority complex and her gushing aren't revealed by how they act but are baldly announced. Fiona's disdain of everything American is equally programmatic, and there are practically flashing signs announcing "Conflict Coming!" The awkward, strained silences when the couples meet at Fiona and Nick's flat are interspersed with lame, obvious jokes. None of this built character; it only tested the audience's patience. Obviously there are tacky, nasty cretins on both sides of the Atlantic, but a valid play needs far more text and subtext than this.
Since it was all so obvious, suspicion was raised that perhaps something else was in the offing - a movie satire, or a send up of Beckett-style absurdity. But no, it only set up getting antagonistic partners into bed. There was some amusing slapstick by the hapless Lori, but the play also shows it was written some years ago, with dated TV and film references (The Nanny, an English muffin commercial of similar vintage, and Shadowlands, from 1993). Current events were shoehorned in, but the George W. jokes were feeble and forced. A strong hand might have helped, but director Jeff Love did not provide it, as nothing played plausibly. Needed was a dramaturg, or an editor.
As Fiona, Melanie Kuchinski at least seemed to enjoy her haughtiness, even as her character slid into an unbelievable affair with Bernie. Valerie David managed some amusing bits, even though her character, a teacher, needed to have brass-rubbing explained to her. Leavitt underplayed nicely as the unassuming Nick - he was able to make an antisemitic faux pas seem character driven, and he made Nick's growing intimacy with Lori seem natural. (But even that couldn't salvage the ending, when Nick and Lori go off together.) Weissman was wooden, and it was completely false that his clashing with Fiona would escalate into hot sex. He was not forceful enough, and he wasn't offering that much money for her script.
All of this was presented on a well-appointed and -designed set (Love and Virginia Sassman) that included enough detail to believably be an apartment in London, or living quarters back on this side of the big pond. Costumes (Sassman) similarly were real and believable, from Nick's suits to Lori's lack of style. Lighting design (Jeff Gardner) included a nice effect of the glow from a fireplace, but sound was pedestrian, where music over scene changes made obvious points ("Stand By Your Man," "I'll Take Manhattan").
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler