The American Plan

March 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

W. 47th St.

W. 47th St.

I had a lovely birthday, though things took a dive after that. Philip took me to see The American Plan, by Richard Greenberg. Originally produced in 1990, it takes place in the mid 1950’s. The story is simple, even hoary—diabolically charismatic, domineering mother, who “got the last boat out of Germany”, sad, screwy daughter. (The father, who made the family rich by inventing “something in lamps” is dead.)

The women are vacationing at their summer place in the Catskills, across the lake from a hotel full of people they mingle with but consider vulgar, and who in turn refer to the mother as “the Czarina.” The third in their party is the mother’s black maid-cum-companion, Olivia, a brilliantly understated character. The daughter complains at one point, “You never tell anything about yourself. Doesn’t it get lonely having no one to talk to?” Olivia replies, “Yes, it does. But if I told you my secrets, I’d be lonely for the things I told.”

Enter a young man. Later another one, chasing the first. The daughter tries to get away from her mother and fails. In the end, nobody’s happy. As one character says, it’s not that there’s no such thing as happiness. Rather, “Happiness exists, but only for other people.”

Mercedes Ruehl as the mother, Eva, is riveting, utterly lifelike as a larger-than-life character, with the added brio that art brings such a role; you’d never want to meet this woman but watching her on stage is pure delight. The way she bunches up her lips, sighs, how she moves her body in the exquisitely self-conscious, self-possessed manner of a middle-aged force of nature—it’s all enchanting. If theater didn’t exist, Mercedes Ruehl would have to invent it.

Lily Rabe, playing Lili, can’t compete with her but she holds her ground, which for the purposes of the story is just right. She’s too old for the character which skewed things a little—I kept thinking of her as a girl kept captive into her thirties, which during most of the play is not the case. And yet I’m not sure a young actress would have done so well. Right from the start the hold the mother has over the daughter is timeless; Lili is not just a 20 year old aching to get away. “This happens every year,” she explains to her beau, and it feels like she means, “every year for the last 100.” She has a bit of Laura in The Glass Menagerie to her; but she’s not Southern gothic crazy. She’s New York Jewish, post WWII neurotic. Her mind is not so gauzy—there’s real, terrible history in the background—and she has some spine. She seems, almost, to have a chance.

The title refers to what the hotel across the lake offers its guests, and what Lili is not allowed. When she was a little girl, her mother used to sing to her, “The Nazis haven’t found us/But darling, they’re all around us.” In fact, what’s around them is a pair of feckless young men with their own not-inconsiderable pain. The male characters are smaller and less interesting, but make a good counterpoint to the drowning power of family and war.

What makes the play such a pleasure, though, is not the story—twisty and psychologically astute as it is—but the sparkle and precision of the dialogue, and the just-right pacing. Not one scene is too short or too long (kudos to the director, David Grindley). Wit livens every exchange but never at the expense of character.

Happiness, for that evening, was mine.

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