nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
November 14, 2010
Peter Nichols's Lingua Franca begins with a scene in which the main character, Steven Flowers, is fired on his first day at work. Flowers, an Englishman, works for a language school in Florence, Italy, and manages to offend his students by losing his cool in front of them. (He says they are acting like children.) His boss, an Italian man named Gennaro Manetti, explains that because he told them they were acting like children, they refused to be taught by him. Flowers begs him to reconsider but Gennaro remains firm. He will have to find someone else to teach his classes.
Or will he? Gennaro leaves and another teacher—a perky Englishwoman named Peggy Carmichael—enters. They introduce themselves, strike up a conversation and soon, a third person, a Russian in her 50s named Irena Brentano, enters to talk about the school. Eventually, every character in the play arrives, each one a teacher in the school. They swap stories about the school, give key pieces of information about ideal behavior for foreigners in Florence, or just to tell the new guy a little about themselves. The play progresses: the first day turns into a second and a third and I suddenly found myself wondering if I'd heard correctly: Was Flowers fired? I remembered Peggy saying something to the effect that Gennaro rarely fired people but was that to be the resolution to the first scene's conflict? Had Flowers done something to redeem himself and I'd missed it?
I asked the friend I saw the show with and she didn't know either. It's a small detail—maybe an insignificant one—but as the play progressed, it is one I returned to repeatedly. What was Flowers still doing there? Why hadn't Gennaro asked him to leave? Why would Nichols fire his leading man in the opening act and then ignore that he'd done it?
Lingua Franca is filled with dropped themes and strange declarations. Gennaro, a married man, starts and ends an affair with a voluptuous young German teacher named Heidi Schumann over an anti-Semitic remark she makes while fooling around. Aside from some minor discomfort in between, the event barely registers. Then there's Madge, an Australian woman in her late 30s or early 40s who teaches languages she doesn't speak and serves as the play's comic relief. Near the end of the play, she announces that she's taking her girlfriend to Istanbul for a fresh start. The announcement's fine except that there was no prior indication that a fresh start was needed or that she even had a girlfriend. Actions like these made the story difficult to follow and the characters hard to understand.
What's left is a play in which ideas play a more important role than plot and relationships. Nichols's characters give serious thought to their lives and their positions in the world but their words are devoid of consequence. This is a solvable problem but Nichols peoples Lingua Franca with characters designed to create friction (Europeans and colonials of all ages and belief systems); creates scenes of intense emotional complexity (there is a fine seduction scene between Gennaro and Schumann that starts hot but ends very, very cold); and attempts to build a dramatic structure that transforms his lead character, and by proxy, everyone around him (no one escapes unscathed). It's as though he's laid the kindling for a blazing campfire but forgotten to bring a match.