George Bernard Shaw famously noted that America and England are two countries divided by a common language. In You Say Tomatoes (at Interplayers through June 18), playwright Bernard Slade explores this cultural divide as it plays out between individuals. He delivers a few funny lines along the way, but his characters spend as much time confirming the stereotypes as dispelling them. And why must New York always be a stand-in for American culture? But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The humor of Tomatoes comes from the classic romantic comedy premise that opposites attract. It's a technique that Slade used well in his 1975 Broadway hit, Same Time Next Year, and in the '70s TV sitcom, Bridget Loves Bernie. Here, brash New York television producer Libby Daniels (Stephanie Brush) and her Southern assistant, Daisy (Erica Chiles-Curnutte), have traveled to Britain to track down the famous but reclusive mystery author, T.J. Walcott, because Libby thinks acquiring the rights to the author's work will reinvigorate her failing career. When their car dies, thanks to the removal of a critical part, they arrive at the country cottage of Giles St. James (Jamie Flanery), whom Libby suspects is Walcott's alter ego. Giles is not only reclusive but downright repressed, content to live quietly in his cottage and garden with only his housemate, Fred, and a couple of voluptuous squashes for companions. He thinks all Americans are fatuous money-grubbing airheads; Libby thinks all Englishmen are tight-lipped tweedy eccentrics. Amid the battle of stereotypes, romance blossoms, though a misunderstanding drives another transatlantic wedge between the two.
The action moves to New York for Act Two. Now Giles and Fred are the cultural fish out of water. Can the Britons and the Americans learn to communicate? Will Giles let Libby bring his stories to American primetime? Will a reconciliation occur?
Unfortunately, the question becomes: Do we care? The sexual tension that's supposed to be seething just below the surface between Libby and Giles is so deeply buried as to be undetectable. The chemistry at work in the great odd couples of stage and screen -- Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night, Tracy and Hepburn; heck, even Maggie and Joel on Northern Exposure -- just isn't there.
One problem perhaps is that Stephanie Brush looks too young, fit, and pretty to be the down-at-the-heels Libby, subject of much self-deprecating age-related humor. When she says that no one has accused her of being sexy for a long time, the line doesn't ring true. It's easy to see why even a repressed guy like Giles would be physically attracted to Brush's Libby, but it's harder to understand what she sees in the frumpy chap with the mismatched socks.
As Giles, Jamie Flanery nails the emotionally detached, absent-minded author whose contempt for all things American runs deep -- though this may be part of the problem, too. His anti-American harangues are so passionate and dead-on sincere that it's hard to imagine him setting those feelings aside for anything so banal as sexual attraction.
Through their verbal sparring, Giles and Libby live up to each other's stereotypes. She's the pushy New York broad who thinks everyone is motivated by money; he believes that everything British is culturally superior to anything American, money be damned. The actors emphasize these traits so well that their characters almost swerve beyond sympathy; it's hard to imagine any common ground between them. So when Giles plants a smooch during a moment of unanticipated physical contact, the action seems to come out of nowhere. When Libby's ready to follow him upstairs at a moment's notice, it's even more of a surprise given their recent mutual antipathy.
Fortunately, in Act Two, the characters shed some of their defensive armor and gain dimension. In her New York home, Libby becomes more vulnerable, more world-weary, more willing to admit that her world is far from perfect. And Giles reveals his vulnerable side, too, as he navigates the unfamiliar shoals of American culture. But they continue to talk at each other, rather than to each other, so the romance remains AWOL.
Many of the best laughs went to the supporting characters. As Libby's faithful assistant, Daisy, Erica Chiles-Curnutte proves that a touch of ditziness doesn't impair one's organizational or observational abilities. She delivers a dandy little speech near the end about valuing diversity and embracing cultural difference that's powerful enough to knock some sense into the hard-headed Libby and Giles. Barrie MacConnell is charming as Fred, Giles' housemate who is cook, housekeeper and font of hospitality. Fred is a simple man who's open to new people, places, and experiences, and it is he who most successfully bridges the divide while clearly knowing who he is.
Even though the play is only a decade old, it feels dated. In a post-9/11 world, anti-Americanism runs deeper, stronger and wider than imagined by Slade. The play feels like a quaint artifact from another age.
In the end, the characters learn that others are more than some cardboard cutout of traits. Sure, Libby's had plastic surgery - isn't that just so American, to care about image over substance? - but there's a reason that lends depth to her character. Sure, Giles hates Americans for worshipping the almighty dollar, but he has his reasons, as we learn near the end. Sure, the characters learn grudgingly to see beyond the stereotypes, but this jury's still out on whether knowledge will lead to change.
Publication date: 06/02/05