NEW YORK — SOME AMERICANS ABROAD Play by Richard Nelson. Directed by Roger Michell. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through April 15. RICHARD NELSON is an amused observer of his compatriots (academic division) in ``Some Americans Abroad.'' The new arrival at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center represents an unusual collaboration. The comedy is being presented by special arrangement with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, where it premi`ered, and is being staged by RSC resident director Roger Michell. A kind of transatlantic collegiality results.
``Some Americans Abroad'' begins its peregrinations in Luigi's Restaurant in Covent Garden as members of the English faculty at an American college are about to shepherd a student group on a literary-theatrical tour. The occasion places one-time student activists Joe Taylor (Colin Stinton) and Philip Brown (John Bedford Lloyd) at opposite ends of the table, matched by their opposing views about the role of politics in the theater. Such are the verbal encounters that help enliven the comedy.
Taylor, the devious new head of the department, is conducting his first overseas academic excursion, having taken over from gruff old Orson Baldwin (Henderson Forsythe). Among the accompanying faculty members is Henry McNeil (Bob Balaban), who has paid his own way on the trip, apparently as part of a desperate effort to save his teaching job. Mr. Balaban's quietly touching performance provides a needed emotional substance.
MR. NELSON'S other concerns are more incidentally treated as the tour winds its leisurely way from London to Stratford and various other points of literary interest. The faculty chaperones are faced with a crisis when student Donna Silliman (Elisabeth Shue) runs off briefly with a male student from another group and, when returned, accuses Professor Brown of taking liberties with her. There are quibbles and quarrels as the increasingly harassed Taylor tries to ensure that curricular planning doesn't fall victim to extra-curricular problems.
Under Mr. Michell's savvy direction, the well-tempered Lincoln Center ensemble conveys the author's sharp yet responsive view of life among the academics. Like everyone else, professors can indulge in clich'e (``The man who wrote `Hamlet' knew the world is complicated.'' ``Not to sound pretentious....''). Besides those already mentioned, the good cast includes Kate Burton as McNeil's worried wife, Cara Buono as Joe's daughter, Jane Hoffman as Mrs. Baldwin, Ann Talman as a former student now married to an Englishman, and John Rothman as the kind of American these pedagogues scorn.
Lettered projections identify the passing scenes and shrines of ``Some Americans Abroad.'' These are adroitly incorporated into designer Alexandra Byrnes's clever settings, lighted by Rick Fisher. Jeremy Sams' jazzy between-scenes music adds a piquant note.