Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bad Planning

The American Plan
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by David Grindley
Starring Kieran Campion, Austin Lysy, Brenda Pressley, Lily Rabe, Mercedes Ruehl

Performances from January 2 to March 15, 2009
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street

Ruehl in The American Plan (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Like Henry James’ novel Washington Square–itself turned into a solid play, The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz–Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan explores the complicated relationship between a domineering parent and a fragile daughter.

Unlike James and the Goetzes, Greenberg focuses on a mother: steely German-Jewish widow Eva Adler and emotionally sheltered daughter Lili are at a Catskills resort in 1960. When handsome young Nick appears out of the blue–literally, for he comes out of the lake onto the dock where Lili sits–he not only sweeps the girl off her feet, but also gives her hope that she will be able to escape the clutches of her mother. But will she?

I never saw Manhattan Theater Club’s original production of The American Plan in 1990–but based on David Grindley’s competent but unexciting new staging, it’s tough to take Greenberg’s play seriously as an insightful, humorous study of various relationships circa 1960, a year which awkwardly bridges the idyllic ‘50s and the volatile ‘60s.

The American Plan relies almost exclusively on coincidence and heavy irony, especially Eva’s Nazi-scarred past, Lili and the too-good-to-be-true Nick’s meeting, Lili’s and Nick’s extensive fibbing, and his surprising personal life (which isn’t all that surprising, at least how Grindley stages the “revelation” on Jonathan Fensom’s unimpressive dock setting). The play’s final–and most lackluster–scene occurs a decade later on Central Park West, protesters in the background as two of these characters have a muted reunion that fails to convince, thematically and narratively. Greenberg’s high-minded dialogue rarely sounds believable coming out of his people’s mouths, particularly in this soggy, unaffecting epilogue.

It would be a chore for even the most talented actress to persuasively play Lili, and poor Lily Rabe can’t cope with her wholly inconsistent personality; when she throws herself at Nick when he comes out of the lake, all shimmering wet and rippling muscles, it’s more laughable than anything. Usually a formidable actress, Ruehl is defeated by Eva; the actress’s usual boisterousness ends up undermining her character. At least Kieran Campion (Nick), Austin Lysy (Nick’s “friend” Gil) and Brenda Pressley (the Adlers’ stereotypical maid Olivia) acquit themselves well in roles flimsily written by Greenberg.

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