Richard Nelson’s “New England” begins with a violent act, and follows it up with two hours of genteel chat. Smoothly written and consistently amusing, the play dances maddeningly around some engaging themes without exploring them deeply enough to ignite any dramatic sparks. Like the displaced Britons who people it, “New England” is literate, smart and something of a bore.
The sudden suicide of music professor Harry Baker (Michael O’Hagan) brings together his immediate family; though thoroughly English, they don’t have to cross the Atlantic to attend the funeral at Harry’s Connecticut farmhouse.
His cool daughter Elizabeth (Melinda Peterson) works in publishing in New York, and is the first to arrive, though her strained politesse doesn’t provide much comfort to the warm-hearted Alice (Katherine McGrath), her father’s live-in girlfriend, also British and a former publishing exec.
Flying in from parts west are Harry’s other daughter, Gemma (Deirdre O’Connell), who lives in
Santa Fe near Harry’s twin brother Alfred (O’Hagan), and Harry’s son Paul (Benjamin Livingston), who — horror of horrors — works as a reader at a Hollywood studio (“That’s a profession in Los Angeles now,” Alfred snipes incredulously).
Paul has brought along his French wife Sophie (Lillian Garrett-Groag), and it’s indicative of the fun the play has at the expense of all things non-English that Sophie, the only non-Anglo onstage, is irredeemably irritating.
The other outsider at this only mildly somber family reunion is Tom Berry (Phil Proctor), Alice’s ex-brother-in-law, a voice coach whom Alice had invited for the weekend, and who arrived just after Harry’s death.
His mortification at discovering that his presence — though Alice very properly welcomed him to stay the weekend despite the tragedy — is resented by the family is one of the play’s few dramatic bumps.
But one could hardly fault him for his obtuseness, since the family doesn’t seem very distraught at Harry’s death, very disturbed by Tom’s presence, or even particularly happy to see one another.
There is some muted resentment of Alice, who discovers that Harry had kept from her that his first wife, the children’s mother, was alive until just a few months previously. Alice takes revenge on the chilly reception she’s accorded by the kids by sleeping with Alfred, which occasions slightly less muted resentment.
The children discuss their father’s vague unhappiness, but there are no great discoveries made, no bringing to a head of long-held sibling conflicts, no sturm und no drang. Mostly, there is chat. At one point someone even threatens to bring out a jigsaw puzzle.
Nothing here rings false: As with many a family reunion, more energy is perhaps expended in avoiding potential confrontations than plumbing any emotional depths.
But this isn’t a dramatically lively setup. The U.S.-born Nelson, an “honorary associate artist” at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where the play premiered, seems most intrigued by the mysterious love-hate relationship between Englishmen and America, but no great discoveries are made on this score either.
The question primarily provides for innumerable vulgar-American stories, and this viewer — not notably jingoistic, I think — began to bridle at the barrage of anecdotes about witless Yank philistines.
The production, as is customary at South Coast Rep, is impeccable. Neil Peter Jampolis’ handsome, expansive set is nicely lit by Jane Reisman (though the village-scape seen through the kitchen window is a little cheesy).
Director David Emmes has brought out some very fine performances, most notably from McGrath, whose confusion of emotions is beautifully detailed; and from O’Connell, who has a soupcon of Sandy Dennis in her style, as the genial, unpretentious Gemma.
Slightly overplaying are Garrett-Groag and Proctor, who provide many of the comic moments, and may have been instructed by Emmes to give a little too much oomph to a play that’s in desperate, though genteel, need of it.