Analogy alert! Similarly, the rest of the world surely knows America better than we know them maybe better than we know ourselves. This is partly because everyone else looks in at us: U.S. popular culture has colonized the globe until our movies, music, TV, jeans, magazines are effectively theirs, with our accent. And partly because we don't look out. The distribution in the U.S. of foreign-language films, novels, pop songs is minuscule, irrelevant to the American masses. So when we hear something sassy about ourselves from foreigners say, the French at, say, the U.N. it shocks and hurts us. But that's because we haven't been attending to the constant murmur of the talk we provoke. The elephant doesn't hear the buzz either.
Go abroad and you hear it. I do. Each year, as summer approaches, I make a hajj to London's West End to see the latest shows. I was there this year during an unseasonably warm spell. The English are so unused to balmy weather that, when the sun takes a robust turn, they rush outside, roll up their sleeves and flop on a lawn or bench for a London broil. All that fair skin takes a ruthless incinerating; by day's end, the only color anyone's wearing on face and arms is pink. I guess, considering the caustic images of American statesmen and media figures in the shows I saw over there, my face should have been red.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT FOREIGNERS (NORWEGIANS AND LONDONERS)
After the crappiest selection in decades at the Cannes Film Festival, I found a terrific season of London shows. One was actually about London: the musical "Our House." I hadn't hoped for much. Since it's a trunk show of songs from the 80s ska group Madness, and since it's about a young man who splits in two to see whether he'd turned out right if he went bad, the show could have been a mix of the amateur ABBA show "Mamma Mia" and London's longest-running bad musical, "Blood Brothers" (15 years and it hasn't had the grace to close). But the Tim Firth book weaves the songs smartly around a cleverly developed situation, and director Matthew Warchus moves the dense human traffic with lightning precision. Even the dancing's good. Run fly to London before the show, which won the Olivier Award for Best Musical, closes. You have two weeks.
A fortuity of Ibsen revivals generated two excellent productions: Trevor Nunn's staging of "The Lady from the Sea," starring Natasha Richardson, and Adrian Noble's "Brand," with Ralph Fiennes. (I missed Patrick Stewart in "The Master Builder"). Fiennes, his thin voice willing itself to fierce majesty, is ideal as Brand the mad priest, so devoted to saving people for God that he destroys them. The piece ends with a literally moving coup de theatre that ... well, go see for yourself. Cheapest round-trip New York-London airfare: $335.
"Lady from the Sea" has a plot that's high Harlequin: a dark and stormy night, a chronically sensitive young wife aching for a strong rogue to free her from the cage of marital propriety Nunn brought his patented clarity of emotional line within a vigorous visualization. And Richardson virtually channeled her mom: she had all the intensity, and nearly the magic, of Vanessa Redgrave in her early radiance. This show has closed, but there's plenty else to see in London, and when you get there you'll find cheap, cozy bed-sits for under $100 a night.
(AND SOME ITALIANS) (AT LEAST, THEY THINK THEY ARE)
The swankest show in the West End is "Absolutely (Perhaps)," Martin Sherman's adaptation of the Pirandello play usually known in English as "Right You Are (If You Think You Are)." Director Franco Zeffirelli, still sparking glamorous ideas at 80, also designed the production: instead of walls, he has grids of rectangular jigsaw pieces flanked by walled mirrors. The set handsomely visualizes the play's core: a puzzle demanding reflection. On either side of the set are two rows of seats for members of the audience our surrogates in considering the scandal that unfolds, silent (for the most part) judges in the trial, or magic show, that unfolds before them.
Here's the delicious dilemma Pirandello poses: Three strange characters: a man (we'll say A), his wife (B) and an older woman (C), whom the man has forbidden his wife to contact. A says it's because C is mad: that she believes the man's wife is her daughter, when in fact her daughter was the man's first wife, who died in an earthquake, and B is his second. C says A is mad: that he mistakenly believed his wife had died in an earthquake, and to humor him B pretended to be another woman, whom he then married. You're skipping this paragraph, but my pleasure in recalling this production must overrule your bored befuddlement. The disputants plead their respective cases: individually in Act One, then together in Act Two, then with the mysterious wife at the climax.
Which strand of gossip is true? The townspeople want to know or do they? As long as the matter is in doubt, they can keep nattering and give their shallow lives the semblance of drama. They want to believe the husband, because he speaks with such fiery protectiveness. They want to believe Signora Frola, because she was the first to speak, and because she clucks with such matronly concern over her daughter and her son-in-law, and because Joan Plowright invests her with such easy dignity. In fact, there are no facts, just testimony. As Laudisi, the one skeptic ion the crowd, says, "Oh please! What can you learn from facts? ... What on earth can we ever know about anyone else? Do you think we know, really know, who other people are, or what they are, or what they do, or why?"
The play may be a surreal charade, a pre-Borgesian construct, but it is beautifully arranged and acted. And in demonstrating how the mind can be fooled, it manages to touch the playgoer's heart. At the end I've decided you're not going to London just because I recommend it, and if you are you can skip this paragraph the mystery woman, whose name is either Lina or Julia (or neither), materializes, embracing her mother fervently, kissing her husband passionately. Her gestures take no sides in the dispute; she seems equally indulgent of the contradictory beliefs held by these two people who obsessively, perhaps quite madly, love her.
In a time of minimalist drama, where two or four characters try to occupy a bare stage, it's a joy to set the set filled so profligately with people 14 in the official cast, plus a few surprises. Each role is attractively embodied, and at the end, when the mystery woman materializes, she (lovely, grave Alice Selwyn) has the star quality the part demands. You'll just have to take my word for it.
Among the patrons in theater lobbies each summer, the prevailing accent is (accents are) American. I always figured they came over to hear how the language ought to be spoken; the English are so good at English. These days, it's heard more and more on the stage, emerging from the wisecracking mouths of some pretty nasty, venal or certifiably nutso characters. A team at the National is attempting a blend of the racy, rickety newspaper comedy "The Front Page" and its gender-switched movie version, the sublime "His Girl Friday." (This new version, by John Guare, keeps too much of the old play, and the show still has rickets.)