Americans, Arcola Theatre, London

It's ironic that one of the most astute post-September 11 plays was completed in the December before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. Set in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan of 1998, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul contains a joltingly prescient scene in which an intellectual Afghan woman, whose life has been made impossible under that regime, rounds on her Western visitors. If the US loves the Taliban so much, why don't they import them to New York? "Well, don't worry," she concludes, "they are coming to New York."

The phenomenon recurs with Americans. Eric Schlosser wrote it in 1985, long before Fast Food Nation, his devastating critique of McDonald's culture, made his reputation. But it's not hard to see why September 11 stirred him to dust the piece down, or why Dominic Dromgoole and the Oxford Stage Company have elected to give Americans its belated world premiere. Set in 1901, it's a play that ends on another predictive note. Condemned to death for assassinating a US president, a young, unrepentant anarchist goes to the electric chair telling his audience that American cities will one day go up in flames because of the "outrageous vanity" of the country's foreign policy. Schlosser sees Leon Czolgosz's action - shooting President McKinley - as a pivotal event in the period when the US, having won the Spanish War and conquered the Philippines, was mutating from a republic into an empire, and from the conscience of the planet into its self-appointed policeman.

If there arecertain signs that this is a novice drama, there is also rich evidence of Schlosser's thoughtful, unpartisan approach to shaping, adapting and sometimes inventing the material. He allows every side its say - unlike the New York courts, which did not, at that time, allow the defendant in a first-degree murder trial to plead guilty. This prevented Czolgosz from presenting the assassination as what, to him, it was: a Brutus-like act of clear-sighted principle.

In Dromgoole's arresting production, the scenes are picked out in cones of soft light that penetrate the murk of the Arcola's deep, cellar-like stage and give the proceedings the eerie feel of a bad dream from which it is impossible to awake. With some piquant doubling (McKinley and Czolgosz's illiberal defence lawyer both played by Ed Bishop) and uniformly fine acting, it makes a strong case for a play that will only be called "unAmerican" by those who would level that charge at Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky.

To 22 Nov (020-7503 1646)

Comments