January 28, 2009

Tough Choices with "The American Plan"

When I read that The American Plan was set in the Catskills during the summer of 1960, I thought it was going to be similar to the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing.” And it does hew closely to that hit film’s storyline of a rich girl who falls for a less-well-off guy and the overbearing parent who tries to interfere with the daughter’s affair. But Richard Greenberg’s 1990 play, which the Manhattan Theatre Club is currently reviving at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, also resembles a bunch of other movies and plays. As we sat over a post-show dinner at the theater canteen Orso, my husband K and I started listing them: The Glass Menagerie, The Heiress, The Light in the Piazza, Suddenly, Last Summer.

And yet, although it may be an oft-told tale, The American Plan adds a couple of contemporary twists. I can’t tell you about one because it’s a surprise that you should discover for yourself when you see the show (it’s playing through March 15) but the other deserves to be talked about. For unlike those other shows, The American Plan liberates the girl, making her less a na├»ve victim than a slyly perceptive woman who is aware of the trade offs that the pursuits of love and money can demand.

Even so, I’m mixed about this show. My pal Bill, who’d gone to an earlier performance, told me that I would get a kick out of the first scene. Which I did because one character establishes his bonafides by saying he works for Time Magazine (which I once did) and another hers by saying she attended Sarah Lawrence College (which I also did). And I enjoyed many of Greenberg's one-liners. But, for the most part, I felt let down.

I’m a big fan of the show's director, David Grindley. I loved what he did with the Tony-winning revival of the World War I-era drama Journey’s End a couple of seasons ago. And I respected him for daring a different interpretation of Pygmalion in the controversial 2007 production at the Roundabout. But he seems off his game here, never quite getting his hands around the multi-textured layers of this piece.

The acting was up and down too. Lily Rabe, who plays the rich girl, lives up to her pedigree as the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh and makes her character poignantly believable. And Brenda Pressley brings an elegant dignity to the role of the family’s maid that turns her character into more than the stock family retainer. Kieran Campion impressed me less as the suitor. In fact, at first, I thought he might have been hired for his anachronistic but totally impressively-toned abs. Although he did fare better in the second act.
But the most problematic performance for me was Mercedes Ruehl’s.

Ruehl is one of my favorite stage actors and the role of the haughty mother who barely escaped the Holocaust would seem to be perfect for her usually formidable talent. But Ruehl doesn’t yet seem comfortable in the part. The mock German accent she assumes is part of the problem but far more damaging is her failure to express all the impulses roiling around inside the complicated character she plays. She gets the woman's humor and her deviousness but not the underlying fear and love that motivate them.

But I’m in the minority on this one. Most of the critics like the show. And I can’t say I’m really surprised by that. We seem to be growing increasingly obsessed with the repressive attitudes of mid-20th century America. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, stars of
the romantic 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” are now onscreen in “Revolutionary Road,” a film adaptation of the Richard Yates novel about a couple battling conformity in the Eisenhower-era suburbs. TV viewers are mad about the series “Mad Men,” which revolves around a group of fettered ad execs and the women in their lives during the Kennedy presidency. Maybe we’re just trying to reconcile ourselves to the long period of unhappy choices that are heading our way.

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