With Second Stage coming up on its 30th anniversary, and much solid original work to show for those years, it’s worth noting that the company has been just as diligent about carrying out another of its precepts: to revive American plays that merit a second look. Richard Nelson’s 1989 comedy “Some Americans Abroad” — a scathing satire about a group of academics behaving badly on their annual cultural binge in London — is too truthful to ever go out of date, and it proves a perfect fit for a company with a smart and sophisticated, if slightly curdled, sense of humor.
Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater and the go-to guy if you have your heart set on an airtight ensemble production, manages this 11-member cast with a firm and steady hand. Backed up by a superior design staff that keeps the traffic moving and the play’s multiple scenes in perfect sync, he holds the focus on the character flaws, moral failings and ethical compromises that make Nelson’s pretentious academics such hilarious targets for satire.
It’s clear from Edelstein’s meticulous staging of the first scene — a boozy and boisterous after-dinner conversation at Luigi’s restaurant in Covent Garden — that Joe Taylor, the newly appointed chairman of the English Dept. at a second-rate college, is the man with the political muscle in this group. Caught with merciless precision by Tom Cavanagh (“Urinetown”), Joe is every inch the administrative bully besotted with his own power.
But for all his bluster about everything from politics to Shaw, Joe has none of the essential body parts — no spine or guts or heart or brains or stones — to back up the newfound authority that he asserts with such awkward bravado. That becomes amusingly obvious in later scenes with the imperious former department chair and his outspoken wife, presented in cruel and funny portraits by John Cunningham and Pamela Payton-Wright.
But so long as Joe is browbeating the professors who depend on him for tenure, he’s a happy bully. Only Katie, his 18-year-old daughter, dares to shoot skeptical looks (well aimed by Cristin Milioti) at his pronouncements. And only Joanne, an American ex-pat caught in all her pathetic absurdity by Halley Feiffer, seems to think he’s cute.
Nelson doesn’t miss a single pit stop for these academics on their yearly literary pilgrimage. Clutching their play tickets and dizzy from taking in two shows a day, they race from the West End to the National to the Court and eventually to Stratford, while making ritual stops at literary landmarks like Westminster Bridge and Henry James’ house in Rye. Along the route, teachers kiss up and shack up with their peers while students bail, run off with boys and charge their elders with rape.
One particularly nasty scene of academic one-upmanship is staged in the hallowed precincts of Foyles bookshop — a wonderful acting moment for Anthony Rapp (“Rent”), whose beleaguered character, Henry McNeil, has paid his own way on this trip for himself and his wife Betty (Emily Bergl, biting her tongue) in the hope of saving his job.
Henry’s desperation gives a serious focus to the antics of these ugly academics, whose worship of all things British reveals their secret loathing of themselves. But in this carefully wrought production, every character is given a chance to assert some integrity and stand up to Joe. It goes without saying that none of them takes it.