Inn Town Players and Element Theatre Company

at the Project

Americans and the British have long had a love/hate relationship; it began with the English as the overbearing parent and us the rebellious child. The blood ties have weakened considerably of course, and now we’re more like third cousins once removed. Yet people on both sides of the Atlantic persist in maintaining the family myths, which grow ever larger and more romantic.

In Caryl Churchill’s play Icecream, now being produced jointly by the Inn Town Players and Element Theatre Company, many themes are kicked about (including Churchill’s favorites, sex and violence). But the primary theme is the differences between the Americans and the British and the shattering of those myths. The title is a reference to a word that is written the same in both countries but pronounced differently: Americans say ice cream, while the English say ice cream. This difference in pronunciation, though minor, is indicative of the much larger differences between the two cultures.

Churchill divides her main characters equally between the two sides of the Atlantic. There are two couples: an older American husband and wife, Lance and Vera, and a young English brother and sister, Phil and Jaq. The first act takes place in England, where Lance is trying to trace his British heritage and meets the English siblings, his distant relatives. But violence and infidelity disillusion the couple, and they leave England in a panic, happy to go home to what they know, secure in the knowledge that they never have to see their British relatives again.

This of course is not to be. The siblings come to visit and are thrilled to finally be in the United States. Then it’s their turn to encounter tragedy and lose enthusiasm for the transatlantic culture.

Caryl Churchill attempts to expose the realities of both Americans and the British, but she is English, and so is her play. As a consequence the British are portrayed as more sophisticated, more interesting, and ultimately more adventurous. The writing is very British–short, clean scenes that teem with violent, passionate subtext but reveal little in the words. Yet the production at the Project is outrageously American, and therein lies the problem. The subtext is brought to the surface in living, screaming color–and the script stops making sense. The honesty goes out of it, as well as the beautiful subtleties.

The clearest example of this lack of subtlety comes at the opening of the play, when the two Americans are trying to sing a British song. They can’t remember the words past the first line so they fudge it: “And by something and by something and by something I will go / And never something dadeedadeeda / And something and dadeeda and something in my step / And I’ll never something something of the isles.” But in this production the two gleefully sing the song in loud unison–as if “something” and “dadeeda” were the actual words. It’s an odd reading of the text–not a major stumbling block, but indicative of the lack of understanding of nuance throughout the play. In fact, all of the characters have been made loud and broad, almost caricatures, and they turn Churchill’s understated dialogue into nonsense. It’s like Jerry Lewis doing Pinter.

To compound the problem, director Lizabeth Sipes seems to want the Americans to be the good guys. Her English siblings are amoral, punk degenerates, bored by everything and bringing disaster and violence upon themselves with as much nonchalance as Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. The Americans are boorish in their own right, but compared to the British hoodlums, they’re class exemplified.

The cast take on the stereotypes with enthusiasm. Though too young for their roles, Robert Maffia (Lance) and Janet Brooks (Vera) could be Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver. Maffia begins a bit too stiffly, but when he returns to the United States and really starts to fall apart, his intense, all-American manner helps us sympathize with his growing agony. Brooks begins with a bang and a full-grown character, but her whining and mugging soon become tiresome. She also makes some strange acting choices, such as laughing maniacally for no apparent reason throughout her session with an analyst. Michael Cates (Phil) and Lusia Strus (Jaq) do better with the English siblings. Cates struts and pouts with a fierce cockiness, the ultimate bad boy; Strus pouts too much but is fascinating to watch, with her brazen Bette Midler touch. Wendy Goldman Rohm doesn’t quite know how her various small parts fit in; but Peter Defaria sometimes steals the scene with his. In fact, he has the one honest and exciting scene in the play, when he portrays an embittered young American college professor who picnics with Jaq. Defaria plays the scene with low-key sincerity, giving us a glimpse of what Churchill’s play could have been.