Grand highlights of Mr. Horton’s dynamic work includes an analysis of Animal Farm while he erases the novel’s seven animal commandments that are written on a blackboard as they are overturned one by one, by the pig Napoleon who represents Josef Stalin. There’s also a dramatic demonstration of American versus British rationing during W.W. II as Orwell produces bountiful American foodstuffs comparing them to the meager provisions allowed in Great Britain.
Instead of a conventional one-character historical work, playwright Sutton opts for an entertaining conceit. A lively 28 year-old woman from his publicist’s office accompanies Orwell during this imaginary 1948, four-week tour of the United States. This provides Orwell with a foil to express his views and someone to be flirtatious with.
In real life Orwell never visited the United States. It was the era of Alger Hiss, young Richard Nixon, HUAC and the Hollywood Ten. This self-confessed and proud socialist fields combative questions from right-wing Americans during the question and answer sessions. He explains about his disdain for Communism and totalitarianism.
Mr. Sutton has obviously researched Orwell and his times and has skillfully woven all of the pertinent facts into his well-crafted dialogue. Sutton depicts Orwell accurately to anyone who has read about him. His fondness for smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey is shown. That he was born Eric Blair, had a privileged upbringing, struggled to make a living as a writer, fought in The Spanish Civil War, had a wife who died, and that he had a son are among the personal details imparted.
For Carlotta, the young woman assistant, Sutton creates a believable and charming figure to support and challenge Orwell.
The vivacious Jeanna de Waal winningly plays her. The blonde and animated Ms. de Waal offers a lovely characterization conveying attractiveness and intelligence. De Waal and Horton have great chemistry together which is an integral part of the production’s success.
Less successful is Sutton’s addition of a third character, a “Young Man” who appears very briefly and doesn’t add much to the plot. The appealing Casey Predovic though does a fine job in this role.
Director Peter Hackett’s staging crisply presents the action with clarity so that one is aware of where everything is taking place. Mr. Hackett also involves the actual audience at times as the author intends. Hackett’s work with the actors achieves the desired sensitivity and passion.
Caite Hevner’s simple, cheery unit set is the living room of a hotel suite. There’s a leather couch, a coffee table with copies of Animal Farm, chairs and a window. It serves as the setting for the hotel rooms in cities such as Utica and Dayton. For scenes representing Orwell lecturing at a hall, Horton stands off to the side while Stuart Duke’s imaginative lighting design shifts, designating the location.
Orwell’s academic attire of a gray blazer, chinos and a sweater vest and Carlotta’s skirt and sweater all have the look of the 1940’s thanks to Amy Sutton’s rich costume design.
The simulated audience’s questions, train sounds and other effects are perfectly modulated by Ben Montmagny’s expert sound design.
Near the slightly protracted ending, we’re urged to sign up to in the lobby receive to our copies 1984 that will be published “next year.” It’s another factual flourish that makes Orwell in America so pleasurable.
Orwell in America (through October 30, 2016)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission