Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the opening entry in the annual Brits Off-Broadway series, is less a play than a boisterous entertainment, inspired by an actual 1942 booklet issued to American soldiers and airmen arriving in Britain to help battle the Nazis. What the creators spin from it is a curious pastiche: part culture clash, part British music hall, seasoned with sometimes hoary comic clichés and a genial spirit. At different times it calls to mind Teahouse of the August Moon, Sgt. Bilko, The Andy Griffith Show, and the caricatured aristocrats in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Before the show properly begins, Lt. Gene Schultz, an American soldier, mingles with the audience and chats, as various period songs play in the background. The music evokes the twin themes of the evening: nostalgia and humor. It’s easy to recognize Dame Vera Lynn’s classic rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” but there are less familiar ones, such as the comic number “Adolf,” by Billy Cotton and His Band.
Adolf, you’ve bitten off much more than you can chew;
Come on, hold your hand out, we’re all fed up with you, gor blimey!
Adolf, you toddle off, and all your Nazis too!
Or you may get something to remind you of the old red white and blue!
As the show starts, Schultz (James Millard) begins the orientation to the town of Nether Middleton, with the audience standing in for the new arrivals. “We” are being housed on the grounds of Tollymarch Abbey, a stately home offered by Lord Tollymarch. “As you can see,” says Schultz, “the engineering corps chose this spot because it benefits from almost perpetual freezing fog.” But the lieutenant’s primary concern is the “toot” that we have all been on the previous night, which resulted in a brawl, the destruction of the village green, and the disappearance of the vicar’s cat, Mr. Pippin.
The cross-cultural tensions begins with the arrival of the senior American officer, Col. Atwood (Dan March) and, shortly after, the British Maj. Gibbons (Matt Sheahan). Atwood is a barking, blustering, round-faced character—Col. Blimp in an American uniform. Sheahan’s Gibbons is more reserved and put-upon but, pushed to extremes, can deliver a stinging takedown with British reserve:
Atwood: Well, we’re only stuck here to save your sorry ass again!
Gibbons: Yes, it’s nice of you to turn up three years late. Again.
The creators (the three actors, and director John Walton) revisit familiar comic terrain: coffee vs. tea, Marmite, morris dancing and British money among them. Sheahan, a mama’s boy and coin collector, has a grand old time explaining pounds and pence on a blackboard, noting that the American usage of dollars and cents is a decimal system, “which, for want of a better word, is … French.”
The second half finds a mini-Punch and Judy show as the three actors impersonate Hitler and satirize the British “stiff upper lip.” Two additional characters appear: March is now Lord Tollymarch himself, a cricket-mad peer who decides that a game can bring the two sides together, and there is a nonsensical batting scene as Schultz uses a baseball bat and Tollymarch a cricket bat to lob paper balls tossed at them by the audience. (The show enlists considerable audience participation, something that, one feels, the British are more enthusiastic about than Americans.)
The other is Maj. Gibbons’s mother, and the lipsticked Millard plays the randy old lady in drag—a nod, perhaps, to Privates on Parade. She has made tea, and a gentle satire of rationing ensues, as well as pure slapstick, as Col. March insists on wolfing down Marmite and slathering a ham sandwich with British mustard.
The three actors are game for the silliness, and they play broadly, with a good deal of blithering and dithering. The satire, too, is evenhanded, and one can imagine that it plays just as well in front of a British audience. The only drawback is that the actors work awfully hard at the comedy, and gradually fatigue sets in. It’s a show that wants desperately to be liked, and sometimes that desperation shows.
But perhaps it’s best to take Maj. Gibbons’s attitude to pub offerings as a guide. “Don’t criticize the beer—we like it warm in this country.” If you like your comedy deftly warmed-over, Instructions for American Servicemen is a tasty show.
The Brits Off Broadway production of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain runs through May 12 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.