Back in 1990, when Richard Nelson’s stinging cultural dissection of a group of American professors traipsing through England opened at tony Lincoln Center, an aura of self-identified recognition permeated its audience. Those folks may not have admitted that they were anything like Nelson’s often irksome creations, but they could have been their upper-crust neighbors.
Second Stage’s rutted revival still works because of the play’s scrutinizing and often bleak view of academia and its discontented lot. It still feels fresh. Our group of travelers — English department chair Joe Taylor (Ed’s Tom Cavanagh), his 18-year-old daughter (Cristin Milioti), and four minions — burrow through bookstores, cafés, and a rapid succession of shows. And it’s clear from the beginning that this will not be a jolly holiday. An early scene of restaurant-bill squabbling (”I only had one glass. How much is one glass?”), for example, eventually leads to deeper issues, like a potential layoff and an affair. Then there’s a mysterious, much-discussed young woman named Donna Silliman (Fiona Dourif).
Director Gordon Edelstein’s production is too cluttered. (Literally: The performers actually carry and deposit Michael Yeargan’s sets upstage after each scene, like discarded baggage. Get it?) And some of Nelson’s choicest lines are muffed here and there. But many of the actors capture academic ennui with finesse. Anthony Rapp finds gentle grace notes as the suck-up prof whose job is in jeopardy. John Cunningham is a delight as a cootish former department chair. And Cavanagh is marvelous, employing just the right amount of machismo (at least for tweedy lit folk) and strength as a group leader. Much of what Cavanagh’s character says is coffeehouse bull, but there’s no doubting how persuasive it is (his discourse on the art of finding used books proves surprisingly useful). Part snake oil salesman and part milquetoast charmer, Cavanagh is any evening’s ideal tour guide. (Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422) B