War may be hell, but postwar life can also be hellish on survivors like Steven Flowers, the young British soldier who clowned his way through WWII in Peter Nichols’ “Privates on Parade” and re-surfaces in “Lingua Franca” as a surly (not deep enough to be angry) young man teaching at a private language school in Florence. An excellent cast does well by this import, which makes a nice fit in the “Brits Off Broadway” fest. But the discursive script doesn’t pull off its ambitious aim of presenting a microcosm of Europe reeling in 1950s postwar angst.
Chris New, who played the spiky playwright Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears,” slips easily into the skin of young men like Steven Flowers, who gives vent to his existential bitterness by behaving rudely.
After insulting his rambunctious Italian students by calling them “bambini,” Steven proceeds to make himself thoroughly obnoxious to all the other misfits at this shabby outpost of European civilization. He butts egos with the head of the school, toys with the affections of one emotionally deprived teacher, forcibly seduces another, and alienates the rest of the staff.
Michael Gieleta, a.d. of the Cherub Company where the production originated, directs his ensemble cast with such a smooth hand that you almost lose sight of the fact that they are all stereotypes.
Charlotte Randle gives a particularly striking perf as the desperately needy English teacher Steven callously leads on. Ian Gelder, an honorable veteran of the original RSC production of “Privates on Parade,” gives the same sympathetic treatment to a sensitive old aesthete who would much prefer to be living in an E.M. Forster novel.
A Russian-Jewish émigré, a plainspoken Aussie lesbian, the suave Italian who runs the language school, and the German bombshell who can’t bother to disguise her loyalty to the Vaterland round out this sad little band of displaced, disillusioned, and disoriented remainders of the old Europe. But Nichols gives such prominence to Steven’s bad behavior that the muted humor of their common misery never coalesces into the kind of savage satire this playwright is plainly capable of.
What the play probably needs is one fat, vulgar, insensitive American to give substance to everyone’s uneasy, but unexamined awareness that European cultural lines are being redrawn — by those gum-chewing barbarians who never heard of E.M. Forster, but won the war.