The downward trajectory of the British journo who comes to New York hoping to bamboozle Manhattan, only to end up beating a drolly embarrassed retreat, makes for a slight but endearing adaptation of Englishman Toby Young’s memoir, which will do quite nicely until the inevitable film version is upon us. Several years back, scribe Tim Fountain devised the indelibly moving solo show “Resident Alien,” which took a fond and poignant look at longtime British expat Quentin Crisp. This time around, Fountain is working from “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” Young’s much-discussed (and, in some cases, much-dissed) account of his time working in New York working for Vanity Fair and falling foul, or so it seems, of all and sundry.
In some ways, of course, Young is a resident alien, too, and this play will appeal most to those who have kept enough of a foot in the twin cultures of London and Manhattan to comprehend the full import of Young’s seemingly ceaseless, and often deliberate, faux pas. No sooner has VF editor Graydon Carter imported the bespectacled Evening Standard journalist from London to take on the job of the young Young’s dreams before the new recruit is opening his mouth and inserting not just a foot but his entire body. His mistakes, one must point out, come at a price, since Young is on the sort of $10,000-a-month Conde Nast salary that would keep London weekly the Spectator — where Young now is theater critic — afloat for a year.
At an Oscar party, he poses as a Daily Mail colleague in order to finesse his way past the so-called “clipboard Nazi,” only to end up banned from talking to the biggies and settling instead for a chat with Amanda de Cadenet. (Who, I can hear you asking?) It’s a sobering occasion for the well-bred son of leftist English intellectuals who has developed an abiding fondness for American low art: Young’s tastes in film, we’re told, run toward “Porky’s” and Schwarzenegger.
Back in New York, Young commits reportorial hara-kiri by asking a then-closeted Nathan Lane if he is gay, while he chooses National Take Our Daughters to Work day to bring a stripper into the apparently frightfully staid VF offices. (That scene will play well as and when the film hoves into view.)
On the page, any potential obnoxiousness — Young seems to revel in lighting up a Cuban cigar in a health food eatery — is kept at bay by the feeling, made clear from the start, that the real victim of Young’s more maladroit doings is, in fact, the writer himself. And the subtext that informs the memoir makes a belated appearance in the brief (less than an hour long) show: a critique of New York cool that teaches Young a lesson in what really counts, starting with the love of the woman Caroline, now his wife, who has no time for Manhattan’s social dictates, alongside the legacy of Young’s octogenarian father, since passed away, who was an architect of the British welfare state. “All he had done,” we are told, “was change people’s lives.”
The play’s tone for the most part is so engagingly flip that it takes some adjustment when the mood turns earnest. “Nothing had prepared me for the realization I wasn’t one of life’s winners,” muses Young, a short, balding, fair-complexioned person who is incarnated on stage by the tall, rangy, rather better-looking Jack Davenport (late of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), who possesses a very full head of dark hair.
While Lane and Carter would no doubt have rushed to confirm Young’s loser status, the writer does fight back. He is rightly and inevitably dismayed by a Manhattan where “you are what you do,” as opposed to a London milieu where the most gauche question imaginable is to ask someone their profession. What’s more, the PC-ness of New York takes some managing, or not, in a late 20th-century climate — Young was back in London by the millennium — where all pleasures, the martini included, have been “demonized.”
Those who saw “Resident Alien” may wonder at the lack of production values here, with Owen Lewis’ staging unfolding on a non-set befitting the play’s status as a late-evening offering where it must follow directly after something else (until May 3, an American two-hander starring Jonathan Pryce). On the other hand, Davenport looks good in a Paul Smith suit and catches exactly the bemusement — indignation disguised as quizzicality — that animates Young’s book. And what’s not to like about an Oxbridge graduate who likes nothing better than to puncture all pretension, including his own? Being a drama critic himself presumably exempts Young from reviewing this play, but I have a feeling he would warm to its eye for human absurdity — not least because the absurdity, in this instance, began at home.