There is new wine in two not-very-old bottles. Nathan Lane has taken over the role of the professor who will not get tenure in Richard Nelson's "Some Americans Abroad." And Timothy Hutton now plays the romantic lead in Craig Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss."
On second viewing, Nelson's play seems to have even more stature. It is about aging '60s campus activists, full of self-righteousness about their ability to disrupt the relatively tranquil atmosphere of academia 25 years ago. ("Every generation needs its war stories," one of their daughters dryly remarks.) They are now full-time academics. Their moral fervor has given way to petty snobbishness, toadying, intellectual bullying and an overall moral queasiness.
Guiding students on a theater tour of England, the profs show their shallowness, wrangling over restaurant bills, judging each other's book purchases. Nelson's writing is so skillful, the actors so accomplished that the most trivial small talk seems to project the men's insecurities and pathetic aggressions.
Nathan Lane brings his customary flair to the role of the man whose degree is from the "wrong" school. His predecessor, Bob Balaban, looked more like a man who has spent a lifetime being rejected, but Lane's pudgy frame enhances the pathos he projects so well.
Richard Nelson's ''Some Americans Abroad,'' which reopened last night on the main stage in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, remains a felicitous comedy about the American penchant for all things English. Mr. Nelson is scathing in his satire, mocking arrogant intellectuals as well as pence-pinching tourists (same people).
As the characters follow the well-traveled cultural route from landmark to landmark, they compulsively consume a high-calorie diet of plays (two long Shakespeares in one day is a gourmandizing experience). Shakespeare, Shaw and Henry James provide a literate subtext of art and morality, repeatedly contradicted in the daily duplicities of the people on stage. Just as academics laugh at their self-portraits in David Lodge's comic novels, they, among others, will be amused by the wit and mordancy of Mr. Nelson's observations.
When the play had its New York premiere in February at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, the production was less incisive than the English one previously staged by Roger Michell at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, through a combination of propitious circumstances, the American version is, as it should be, the equal of the London original.
The first difference is the welcome entrance into the cast of Nathan Lane. This prodigiously talented character actor now plays Henry McNeil, the hapless professor of English who is about to be rejected by his colleagues and cut loose from the tenure track.
Members of the English department in a New England college are in London on one of those generic winter-session courses in cultural uplift - in other words, a good excuse for a free European trip. Henry and his wife (Kate Burton) have paid their own way, tagging along in the futile hope of winning respect and continued employment. Despite his almost embarrassing humility, Henry is the only one in this group of careerists who really has a commitment to teaching.
Mr. Lane, whose face is one wide worry line, captures his character's need and desperate urgency. For him, everything is at stake, not simply his job but his credibility and, one might say, his soul. He will do anything to survive in academia - short of perjuring himself.
When the department head pompously recites Wordsworth's ''Composed Upon Westminster Bridge'' while standing on Waterloo Bridge, Henry helplessly corrects him: ''Wrong bridge.'' One can almost feel Mr. Lane biting his tongue as he speaks the truth, a word that is not often in evidence in the whirlwind tour of ''Some Americans Abroad.'' Ms. Burton is his loyal defender; together, the actor and actress communicate a loving concern for each other, while those around them are engaged in diverse forms of cheating.
Aided by the presence of Mr. Lane and nimbly guided by Mr. Michell, the other actors in this ensemble piece have sharpened their performances and the relationships between the characters. This is especially true in the case of Colin Stinton and John Bedford Lloyd as the department head and his worldly associate, whose womanizing leads to the play's second narrative strand.
Mr. Stinton's character is a cowardly man of middle management -pragmatic rather than principled, ready to offer small bribes (like expenses for dinner) but not real rewards or understanding. Though best friends, he and Mr. Lloyd are antagonists on almost every issue, beginning with questions of politics and theater.
For the production, the newly refurbished Beaumont Theater has been made to resemble the smaller Newhouse and approximates its intimacy. The play and Alexandra Byrne's mobile set adapt easily to the larger stage.
Although the characters are defined by their Anglophilia, in their hearts and manners they are very American. Despite their jeremiads against the vulgarisms of their countrymen - cornered by one such tourist in Stratford-on-Avon, Mr. Stinton pretends to be a naturalized Brit - they are unable to conceal their nationality. There is a wistful insecurity as the academics gather in the rain to sing ''God Save the Queen.'' They sing softly, fearfully worried they might be overheard and identified as some Americans abroad.