Ice cream and Hot Fudge, at Voltaire. Much as been scribbled about the differences between Britain and the United States, two nations divided, as G.B. Shaw once said, by a common language. But few have painted such a clear-eyed portrait of the darker sides of our respective national psyches as British playwright Caryl Churchill in her seriocomic Ice Cream. In scene after scene she punctures the idealized views Americans have of the British and vice versa. In the first act a pair of doltish American tourists, searching for their roots in the UK, find a violent country ridden by poverty and despair, utterly unlike the charming Masterpiece Theatre world they’d expected. In the second act a hardened young British woman flees to America only to find a place as filled with ignorance and vice as lower-class London.

In directing this difficult work Frank Farrell has wisely focused not on Churchill’s philosophical message–which comes through regardless–or on her sometimes witty dialogue but on bringing the play’s striking, well-rounded characters to life. That’s not always an easy task in a non-Equity production, but Farrell manages. And even when his actors occasionally muff their accents–Jenniffer Weigel’s cockney character speaks in a refined BBC announcer’s voice–the emotional truth of their characterizations shines through.

Hot Fudge, Churchill’s four-scene companion piece to Ice Cream, provides a possible explanation for Brits’ and Yanks’ persistent mutual misunderstandings. Workshopped during Ice Cream’s original run in 1989, it explores the myriad lies we tell to get by, to get our way, and to get things by illegal means. The play begins with an elaborate con game reminiscent of the tangled web of financial intrigue Churchill weaves in Serious Money.

Performed immediately after Ice Cream by the same adept cast, Hot Fudge provides an ending of sorts to it, resolving emotions stirred up by a daring but fragmentary work and providing a sense of closure. Alone, Ice Cream ends so abruptly that when I saw it during the original London run, the audience wasn’t sure when to clap.

–Jack Helbig