When New Yorkers think of British expatriates, imperious magazine editors tend to spring to mind, but David Cale concentrates on more humble folk in his new show “Betwixt,” which explores the minds and hearts of British-born men and women making their homes in America. A few of the voices Cale conjures in this mild-mannered collection of monologues and duologues are captivating, and all are evoked with an appealing humor and great sympathy, but there are too many sketchy, unengaging or obscure interludes. Overall, “Betwixt” lacks the depth and artistry of Cale’s previous show, “Lillian.”
Cale, who usually works solo, is joined in “Betwixt” by Cara Seymour, also a veteran performer with the New Group, which is presenting the show under the unobtrusive direction of Scott Elliott and Andy Goldberg. Cale and Seymour perform the show on a soothingly simple set by Zaniz Jakubowski and Kevin Price consisting of a circular platform and a set of white screens suffused with variously colored lights supplied by James Vermeulen.
Most of “Betwixt” is made up of monologues, and it’s a tribute to both the natural generosity and the easy charisma of both performers that when one is performing, the other all but disappears into the shadows, although they sit side by side for its duration. Both Cale and Seymour are British-born actors now working in Gotham, and they slip easily inside the skins of these displaced folks.
Cale’s characters include a tough-talking bloke who parlays his Cockney accent into a role as a chauffeur on a soap opera, and later parlays that into something larger, courtesy of an attitude he finds characteristic of Americans that can be summed up in the words, “I’m here — give it to me!” In a later segment, he plays a former rock star living in the suburbs who’s discovered by a fan in the frozen food section, and is inspired, after several cocktails, to look back fondly on the days of his angst-ridden youth. The segment ends with Cale capably performing a funny punk rant called “The Girl Who Looks Like Elvis Costello,” with music written and performed by Jonathan Kreisberg, who provides guitar accompaniment throughout “Betwixt.”
Seymour brings us the entrepreneur behind a business reached by calling 970-BRIT — “the PBS of phone sex,” she proudly calls it, before going on to enumerate the various options available (“for royalty, press 3…”). The cheeky pride of Hayley Collins, as she calls herself, having stolen the surname from the British siblings who found fame and fortune in the hills of Hollywood, is a variation on the quiet fortitude of Elsie, the hospital gift shop worker whose lonely widowhood is interrupted by the occasional adventure with her nudist neighbors.
Although they are all sensitively and often amusingly written, the portraits here are mere fingernail sketches, superficial snapshots. If given more stage time, these characters might take on the fully human proportions, and the emotional potency, of the people in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” series. As it is, they’re only modestly entertaining, and Cale doesn’t strongly unify the pieces thematically; only a few of the characters offer reflections on the dislocations involved in living the expatriate life. It doesn’t help that a couple of the more stylistically adventurous pieces fall flat, most tiresomely a pseudo-poetic riff delivered by Seymour about a woman’s fantasies of communing with dolphins.
The most delightful segment of “Betwixt” is enlivened by the presence of an American, the flamboyant gay pal of Harold, a closeted company manager of a ballet company. Cale provides the voices of both Harold, a 49-year-old, just-divorced father, and the insistently nudging friend who urges him to lose his British reserve and unleash the “big queen” inside. Harold, however, can’t resist expressing revulsion at “opera fanatics in Gucci thongs.” Nor can he imagine losing his inhibitions by having sex with his friend, as is gamely suggested.
In this explosively funny and yet moving segment, Cale illuminates the conflicted inner life of a man caught, indeed, betwixt two cultures, in this case gay and straight as well as British and American. It’s the kind of emotional dissonance one expects to be explored more deeply in the show. More often than not, however, Cale settles for lighter, and slighter, effects.