The American Plan
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 24, 2009
Back in 1960, when Richard Greenberg's The American Plan takes place, Broadway theatre-going was still a habit for a large segment of the public; frothy, engaging, but ultimately inconsequential entertainments were very much the rule, distinguished more by sparkly dialogue and stars than by their content. Appropriately enough, The American Plan is precisely this sort of theatre experience, and though seeing a piece of this ilk is hardly habitual nowadays, it makes for a pleasing enough diversion even at the luxury prices that the best seats at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre command. Thanks, particularly, to Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe, who give terrific, larger-than-life performances as the mother and daughter at the center of this play, The American Plan emerges as one of the season's most substantial hits thus far.
The time, as I said, is 1960; the place is the Catskills, the summer haven for those who would escape the then still-un-air-conditioned confines of New York City. Eva Adler has a cottage here, across the lake from a fancy resort hotel; she stays here with her awkward 20-something daughter Lili and her African American maid, Olivia. Eva and Lili are constantly at odds, which is simultaneously a kind of pose and entirely authentic, but they share a goal, or at least they say they do, which is to find Lili a boyfriend/husband. One candidate surfaces at the start of The American Plan—a handsome and articulate young man named Nick Lockridge, who is staying at the hotel across the lake but finds that he enjoys the company of Lili and (once he finally meets her) Eva more and more. Nick is supposed to be engaged to one of the spoiled heiresses at the resort, but Eva and Lili are pretty strong-willed creatures, and I don't think I'm giving too much away by disclosing that he and Lili are soon an "item."
But I won't give anything else away, because even though most of the story's twists and turns are easily foreseen, it's nonetheless a great deal of fun to experience them as if they aren't. Greenberg's writing here is, frankly, derivative: echoes of The Glass Menagerie and The Light in the Piazza are the most strongly felt; and if you know Greenberg's own oeuvre you will likely guess (as the man sitting behind me rather loudly did at the performance I attended) what transpires when the play's fifth character—another handsome and articulate young man, this one named Gil Harbison—wanders onto the Adlers' property in Act Two.
The joy of watching The American Plan comes from spending time with these quirky, interesting people, especially because they're being portrayed by such fine actors. Brenda Pressley makes quite a bit out of the smart but enigmatic maid Olivia. Austin Lysy hits all the right notes as late arrival Gil. And Kieran Campion is most engaging as Nick—an all American golden boy whose dark secrets add a sexy fascination to an apparently sturdy and solid surface.
The play belongs, though, to its leading ladies. Rabe is spectacularly good as Lili, constantly keeping us off balance as we wonder how truly troubled and vulnerable she really is. From her very first moments on stage, her gawky command of the space and her slightly throaty voice convince us that she could well be Mercedes Ruehl's daughter, and the two actresses match one another point for point throughout the play. Ruehl herself is wonderful, in her best stage role since Lost in Yonkers, charming or scandalizing us with her wry commentary and offbeat opinions, all the while pulling strings that she has seemingly attached to all who surround her. Ruehl's Eva is a grand creation, one of those classic characters we are thrilled to get to meet but glad we don't actually have to deal with in real life.
The American Plan, which is produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, is neatly staged by David Grindley. Jonathan Fensom's set concept is needlessly busy—there are many long transitions that don't feel necessary or justified—but his costumes are dead-on and, with Mark McCullough's lighting and the evocative sound design by Darron L. West and Bray Poor, the production captures the time and place of Greenberg's work with precision. All in all, this is very much the kind of stylish entertainment that used to be Broadway's forte. A visit to the Friedman Theatre will take you back in time in more ways than one, and in ways that—I thought—felt pretty good.