By Stanford Friedman
Numerous plays have been based on novels but rare is the one inspired by a pamphlet. Yet, the thin comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, is exactly that. Imported from the UK as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival, the show draws its tepid lifeblood from a 1942 booklet that was distributed by the American War Office to GIs serving overseas. Its purpose was to give our fighting boys a better understanding of quirky ole England and its citizens’ many unfamiliar habits. Ripe with contemporary satiric possibilities, the four-man writing/acting/directing team instead work it as a period piece, seeking chuckles in the differences between US and British customs and cuisine. Along the way, there is a swastika sight gag, an extended Nazi puppet show and a couple jokes about inbreeding, but the potential cutting edges in these dark comic moments are eroded by wave after wave of mild humor. The mood is not so much World War II cabaret as it is Saturday night at the nursing home.
With the audience called upon to portray the freshly arrived squadron of the “Mighty Eighth Air Force” (participatory interludes include quizzes and dancing), the mild mannered Lt. Schultz (played as an endearing pal by James Millard), the rambunctious Colonel Atwood (an over-the-top Dan March) and the quintessentially British Major Gibbons (Matt Sheahan) take us to school. First comes a geography lesson with the humor primarily derived from mispronunciation of towns like Worcester, though there is also a funny bout of Scotland-bashing as well. Next, the production’s most successful gambit: an overview of the UK monetary system written as a Who’s On First whirlwind of shillings and farthings. The fact that these scenes rely heavily on the use of a chalkboard speaks to the evening’s general lack of slapstick. The show calls out for physical humor but the closest it comes is some stomp dancing by Col. Atwood complete with holds for applause. Later will come the jokes about warm beer, Marmite, and yes, they are not beyond going for a laugh with a reference to Spotted Dick. And naturally there is the well-worn cricket versus baseball debate which here devolves into a batting contest that has the audience throwing tomatoes, er, I mean wadded up paper balls, at the actors.
Act I is set at an air force base and Act II in a local village meeting hall. In between comes that disorienting puppetry sketch, with the actors’ heads mounted atop tiny German soldier bodies. A Hitler-esque teacher leads his two pupils in “Nazi spy school” techniques that include practicing a stiff upper lip and mastering British understatement. The threat level never rises much above that of, say, a Hogan’s Heroes caper, but it at least injects a little abstract quirkiness into the otherwise predictable proceedings. There is also a quiet jab at America coming to Britain’s aid “three years late,” and a small and low-key undercurrent involving Col. Atwood’s loneliness and failed marriage. But with John Walton’s keep-em-moving direction and Mr. March’s clown foolery, all moments of subtlety are decidedly missing in action.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain – by Dan March, Matt Sheahan, James Millard, and John Walton; directed by John Walton
WITH: Dan March (Col. Atwood), James Millard (Lt. Schultz), and Matt Sheahan (Major Gibbons).
Martin Thomas, set & costume design; Jon McLeod, sound design. Produced by Fol Espoir in association with Jermyn Street Theatre and The Real MacGuffins, Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St., 646-892-7999, www.59e59.org. Through Sunday, May 12. Running Time: 2 hours, including intermission