There’s a pun in the title of Tamsin Oglesby’s “US and Them.” The play, about two couples embarked on a collision course, is also an examination of the conflicting nationalities of the United States and Britain.
Go-getter American husband Ed Marshall (Matthew Marsh) uses “impact” as a verb, and he proceeds, with wife Lori (Harriet Walter), to do exactly that to Englishman Martin Phillips (Hugh Bonneville) and his frequently queasy wife, Charlotte (Siobhan Redmond). Will things improve for the next generation? Oglesby throws open the prospect by positing a burgeoning romance between the Marshalls’ 21-year-old son, Jay (Jonah Y. Lotan), and the Gardners’ prickly daughter, Izzie (Jemima Rooper), who is two years younger.
Oglesby deftly caters to a Hampstead Theater constituency that lapped up the script’s kick-butt broadsides at America (“You wouldn’t have the patience for Northern Ireland; you’d invade it,” Izzie snaps at Jay) while clucking oh-so-self-critically at those aspects of Britain that come under attack. The gleeful Yank-bashing is sure to leave Brit auds too smugly satisfied to bother with such nasty cavils as originality and depth. (That public looks set to grow, with the play mooted for a West End transfer.)
For a while, there’s satiric fuel to be generated in the clashes that ensue from the couples’ extremely sudden meeting: a restaurant encounter in which the bellicose Ed comes to the rescue, or so it would seem, of the reluctantly complaining Charlotte, who has suffered a burn to her coat. Or maybe not.
The Japanese eatery debacle over, the Marshalls invite the Gardners home to their Upper East Side apartment (splendid, natch) and embark upon a friendship. Lori can help with Charlotte’s medical needs, while Ed offers Martin an assist with a business venture involving grass-cutting mechanical sheep. (How British is that?)
Shifting the action across the Atlantic, Oglesby invests Lori with a supposedly most un-American interest in her past, and Martin with a deeply un-English anticipation of the lucre for his latest invention that surely lies in wait. The response to the revelation of Lori’s actual past doesn’t in any way ring true.
Details, though, are scarcely the evening’s raison d’etre, as is gleaned from a swiftly directed production by Hampstead associate Jennie Darnell that gets some mileage from composer Joby Talbot’s “American Beauty”-type score while nonetheless mis-accenting key words. (Marsh says “mature” as an Englishman would, not an American, while Walter, about as quintessentially British as any performer around, falls down on the American pronunciation of “schedule.”) And although Ed speaks in the first act of not “want(ing) to get into the comparison thing here,” that turns out to be “US and Them’s” somewhat wearying stock in trade.
Perhaps only an American long resident in England might have such an eye-rolling response to the sequence of antitheses: the churchgoing Americans vs. the English agnostics, the failure of a certain sort of New York society woman to cook (Lori burns the Thanksgiving turkey) vs. the inability of a particular dipsy Englishwoman to hold her liquor. (Charlotte’s inebriation might be less pronounced, the play suggests, in a culture that sanctioned drink more than modern-day New York.)
As for the barrel-chested bully-boy Ed’s solemn eleventh-hour embrace of the word “closure,” perhaps we can finally declare a moratorium on the use of this particular word as a convenient shorthand for a larger malaise, a point made at least twice in other recent plays, starting with David Hare’s “The Breath of Life.” Oglesby’s circular structure in any case leads to its own closure, tempered by the hint that the Anglo-American merger at the fade-out may not be all fun and games.
Still, even at its most trying (“We’re English, we have history, we have complex philosophies”), the play benefits from a high-powered cast in which youngsters Lotan and Rooper deftly hold their own against the older, highly seasoned quartet in their midst. “At least we elected our ass-licking P.M.,” barks Martin, whom Bonneville, in a welcome return to the stage following films like “Iris,” plays with more shading than such a remark might suggest. And at least, given an ass-kissing play, its actors are willing to visit the boundaries of human behavior where the easy summations that go with a passport simply do not apply.