Welcome to England in the 1940s. World War II is in full swing, and America has finally decided to join the conflict. You might be greeted on your way in the door by a man dressed as a WWII military officer and speaking like a 1940s radio announcer. This very participatory show establishes right away that we, the audience, are the titular American servicemen, here to be given a culture orientation to ease relations with the local Englishmen. But with no curriculum or government handouts to work with, the job falls to three military men – an American lieutenant, an American colonel, and a British major who just cannot see eye to eye.
Misunderstandings abound, to the delight of the audience – er, the troops. Colonel Atwood (Dan March), an American strong-man-type with a predominantly country drawl, does his best to give a general overview of British regions and their cultures. “London: 12 million people, and not one of them can make a decent cup of coffee.” But he is soon pushed aside by Randolph (Matt Sheahan), the prim and proper native Brit. And Randolph is in turn talked over by Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard), the slightly smarter and more mischievous American with a 20th-century New York accent. British culture is raked over the coals – whether by the disdainful Americans or the very indignant Englishman, who in his spluttering attempt to defend his country only invites more laughs.
While the men are tripping over themselves and each other with cultural discrepancies, you may have the sense in the back of your mind that this brand of humor wears a little thin. The premise doesn’t ever really go beyond this: that the English are traditional, repressed, and a little silly, and the Americans are loud, vulgar, and not too smart. There’s nothing really that groundbreaking about the material. And yet, for Anglophiles and Anglophobes alike, these beloved stereotypes prove themselves to be up for another round. From British money (shillings, crowns et. al.) to British food (and on war rations, no less) to British sports (the infamous cricket) to British royals (“bunch of inbreds”), nothing is safe, and all is ripe for a good joke.
Much of the credit for the near-constant audience laughter is to the trio of actors, who are also co-writers of the show. They throw themselves headlong into their characters and caricatures. March not only portrays the bumbling, patriotic colonel, but transforms for a foppish English aristocrat who tries to teach the men – that is, us – how to play cricket. Millard briefly plays an English woman, and also briefly plays the American Lieutenant Schultz playacting as an English woman – both to hilarious effect.
The fourth wall simply does not exist in this play. The whole thing is a very involved experience. You might shake hands with Schultz before the show, as he walks around introducing himself to the “new recruits.” You might be one of the select audience who gets singled out by the colonel for a salute and a small, yet invasive inquisition. And you certainly can’t avoid the fact that by the end of the show, you’ll be hopping on one foot and waving handkerchiefs in a collective best effort at Morris dancing.
So perhaps this show lacks the urgency, or the freshness, of material that can be found elsewhere in New York. However, it doesn’t diminish its main purpose – to make you laugh. The layers of comedy, combined with loving dedication of the actors and writers, make this an undeniably funny experience that had me laughing out loud. Written by Brits playing Americans making fun of Brits who are making fun of Americans, the satirizing and clever (and sometimes not-so-clever) jabs pile one on top of the other until you forget which country you’re supposed to laughing at – though of course, the right answer is both of them.