Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 22, 2009
The American Plan by Richard Greenberg. Directed by David Grindley. Scenic and costume design by Jonathan Fensom. Lighting design by Mark McCullough. Sound design by Darron L. West & Bray Poor. Wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Kieran Campion, Austin Lysy, Brenda Pressley, Lily Rabe, Mercedes Ruehl.
This balance is tricky to maintain, especially in a play that’s alternately angry and forlorn, optimistic and hopeless, and caustic but tentative. Yet if Greenberg’s play, which MTC premiered Off-Broadway in 1990, is often as schizophrenic as its two central characters, the daughter-mother anti-team of Lili and Eva Adler, you’ll see no evidence of this from Grindley. He approaches this precise dramatic muddling of sex, romance, and rebellion in the 1960 Catskills as to highlight both its inner totalitarian terribleness and the latent humanity beneath that promises better things down the line.
At least assuming the characters can unfog their perspectives long enough to see it. Lili (Lily Rabe) and Eva (Mercedes Ruehl) might be the most mendacious members of Greenberg’s quarrelsome quintet, but no one can be absolved of blame. Everyone lies, for a variety of reasons good, bad, and indifferent, but always with the sincere belief the results will be worth it. That they never are doesn’t stop the deception. Nor should it, for Greenberg’s hypothesis is that the greater untruths under which they all live are far more dangerous than the fun fibbing with which they fill their days.
Though Greenberg thoroughly plumbs the depths of Lili and Eva’s dishonesty in the first act, it’s not until the second that he reveals the full scope of his examination. As such, the specifics won’t be dwelt upon here, but suffice it to say that neither Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion), a cocky and amorous writer for Time magazine, nor Gil Harbison (Austin Lysy), the wandered-off-the-path golden boy he meets at the most inopportune time, are in love with the girls they claim to be. Social strata, family expectations, and propriety being what they are, their true loves are even closer and farther away.
This is part of what makes Nick’s affair with the enigmatic Lili, whom he meets after accidentally swimming off the shore of her lakefront property, so compelling. Their relationship is strained at first because of Lili’s insistence on keeping Nick away from her mother. But, Eva, perhaps, is not that bad after all. A Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi death camps, she suffers from many of the same fears that Lili does: loneliness, abandonment, a future bereft of comfort. But she has not, as her daughter has, succumbed to them: Eva can lead a normal life; Lili cannot. Or so it seems.
Normal, though, is a concept always in flux, not least for Nick, who sees himself as a problem solver rather than the problem creator he more accurately resembles. “I cause happiness; that’s what I do,” he says when the treachery and despair around him have apparently reached their nadir. But at that point and beyond, Greenberg shows that one always can - and frequently will - go lower. And it’s the curious strength of The American Plan that this never becomes all-out depressing, but instead morphs into a cathartic deconstruction of the fantastic stories we tell and their impact on the people and the world around us.
Grindley is an ideal director for this: As he proved with his recent revivals of Pygmalion (at Roundabout) and Journey’s End, he’s got the nimble fingers necessary to give period delicacy - whether real or imagined - the gentle twist it needs to feel relevant today. While Jonathan Fensom’s oppressively elegant sets help illustrate this collision, it’s the thin coat of ironic detachment Grindley has applied that transforms what must have originally been a provocative condemnation of upper-crust aesthetics into a glaring, morality-play reminder of why hanging onto the past can be more dangerous than letting go.
But except for Brenda Pressley, beautifully understated as the black maid with a very different perspective on oppression, the other performers too often fall prey to the writing’s surface-level vapidity. Rabe is appropriately energetic and sunny in her role’s softer moments, but conveys no sense of being squashed by the weight of the secrets and uncertainties surrounding her. Campion, however, plays too much of the mystery, making Nick more of a caddish charmer than an appealing cipher. Lysy’s crooked grin and waggly eyes likewise make him too calculated and calculating to please.
This is not a plan that benefits from that kind of telegraphing, in part because it’s already built-in: Greenberg establishes his firm and familiar foundation of conspicuous consumption specifically so he can show the hungers that are eroding his characters from the inside. That’s another part of the irony of his title, which derives in part from the overabundant food the rich always happen across on banquet tables, and in part from the misguided sense of progress some could say has driven the United States over the last 50 years.
The play crystallizes this for us by means of a protest parade that erupts just as the action reaches its latest and saddest point: There are always more battles to fight, and the most important ones aren’t always the ones we hear about on the news. Yet even in his haunting final scene, Greenberg shows how these characters - and many of the rest of us - observe these conflicts at a remove, no matter how directly they affect us. The American Plan is about that above all, and rings with clarion force here even when speaking in Greenberg and Grindley’s barely amplified whispers.