Wednesday, April 24, 2019

219 (2018-2019): Review: INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN (seen April 23, 2019)

"A Spot of Tea; A Cup of Joe"

My subway trip from South Queens to 59E59 Theaters, where I was heading to see Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, had been distressing. The last thing I needed was a show that would only make the evening a total disaster. (Reader: it didn’t.) I arrived late because I’d been stuck on the A train in Brooklyn after someone had jumped or fallen in front of the one before mine.
Matt Sheahan, Dan March, Photo: Lidia Crusafulli. 
 Without going into too much detail, let me simply say that, after a long delay, everyone on my train, which had inched to within a foot of the one still parked halfway through the station, was asked to march from car to car before entering the forward train, and then walk through several more cars until being able to exit onto the platform.
Dan March. Photo: Lidia Crusafulli.
I’d left home at 5:45, it was now 6:45, curtain time was 7:15, I was at Nostrand Avenue, and getting to 59th Street between Park and Madison was going to be a close call. I chanced it via the local and the F, and, after even more adventures, got to the theatre around 7:25. The show had begun a couple of minutes before but I was let in through a latecomers’ entrance. As I wiped my brow and caught my breath, I was quickly delighted at the antics of the show’s three gifted British comic actors, who had brought the show from London as part of 59E59’s annual Brits Off Broadway festival.
Matt Sheahan, Dan March. Photo: Lidia Crusafulli.
When it was over, my plus-one (whom the staff had graciously allowed to take her seat when she learned I’d be late) said her cheeks were still sore because she’d laughed so much. My own cheeks were okay but my knees were a bit shaky following an audience participation sequence late in the show when everyone in the house is asked to rise. I needn’t remind you of the age and hair color—when hair exists—of a typical New York theatregoer.

Then, as Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” blasts away, the crowd, standing in front of its seats on the wooden bleachers, stamps in rhythm, jumps up and down, circles in place, and waves the hankies it’s been given as it executes a Morris Dance they’ve just been taught. Think a British Hokey Pokey and you’ll get the idea.
James Millard, Dan March. Photo: Lidia Crusafulli.
While I could have done without the dancing, the rest of the show proved quite amusing, like a sort of prolonged, Monty Python-meets-"Saturday Night Live" farcical sketch. It’s inspired, of all things, by a pamphlet published in 1942 by the Bodleian Library as Instructions for American Servicemen. The pamphlet was written for American servicemen in England during World War II to teach about the social, climatic, and linguistic peculiarities of their host country, as well as to help neutralize Nazi propaganda designed to create disunity among the two nations. Judging by this show, the Englishmen and Americans didn’t need the Germans to make them behave toward each other like mad dogs in the midday sun.

Cowritten by director John Walton with three really funny actors, Dan March, James Millard, and Matt Sheahan, it presumes that we, the audience, are servicemen attending a lecture-demonstration on the grounds of the stately Tollymarch Abbey. Presiding are two Americans. One is the blustery, medal-bedecked, lunkheaded Col, Atwood (Dan March), a monumentally ignorant Iowan rube who says the most insulting things about his ally. (It’s hard not to be reminded of an equally loudmouthed, ill-informed American leader.)

The other is the more positively appealing, average Joe, Lt. Schultz (James Millard), in leather bomber jacket, who serves to smooth over Atwood’s more assinine behavior. Assisting them is the prim and proper, coin-collecting Brit, Maj. Gibbons (Matt Sheahan), informally garbed in tan military shirt, shorts, and cross-gartered socks (because his other uniform is in the laundry).

The setting, by Martin Thomas (who also did the costumes), is mostly bare, using only a few significant props, especially a two-sided blackboard. All is being done in preparation for the expected arrival at 16:00 of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Meanwhile, concern is expressed for a cat named Mr. Pippin belonging to the local vicar.
Matt Sheahan. Photo: Lidia Crusafulli.
Instructions is essentially a sequence of rapid-fire sketches that allow the actors to play not just their principal characters but, with wigs and costume changes, several others as well. It show their considerably versatile skills at physical humor, mugging, accents (American as well as various British ones), and timing. Even the insertions of broadly obvious cross-dressing is done with music hall perfection.
James Millard, Dan March. Photo: Lidia Crusafulli,.
There are too many standout bits to list but any American who’s ever been to Britain will appreciate the comic takes on the rainy weather, the pronunciation of city names, like Worcester (and its associated sauce), English food (wait till you see Atwood eat it), coffee and tea, the class system, cricket (which is contrasted with baseball), and money. The latter is explained  in a brilliant routine using every inch of a blackboard in which Maj. Gibbons explains how “simple” is the British currency system of pounds, guineas, pence, shillings, farthings, and pennies. A German-accent segment about Nazi spies in England, performed with the actors’ Hitlerian heads attached to Nazi puppet bodies, is also memorable.
Dan March. Photo: Lidia Crusafulli,
Two hours and 10 minutes (including an intermission) is generally far too long for a slender show like this, and is probably its biggest drawback. Yet the actors never run out of steam as they find one way after the other to good-humoredly skewer the more egregiously stereotypical characteristics of both stiff British upper-lips and brash Yankee arrogance.

Like butter patties thrown on the ceiling, some shtick sticks and some slides off, but there’s plenty of stuff to laugh, guffaw, chuckle, smirk, or merely smile at. And for some us, the golden oldies we sometimes hear, like Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” or the Andrews Sisters “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” even provide a bonus jolt of 40s nostalgia. To which I say, “Cheerio!”

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 12