Fear itself is something to fear in “The American Plan” by Richard Greenberg, an elegant and incisive 1990 play that has been given the revival it deserves by the Manhattan Theater Club. In David Grindley’s subtle yet shimmeringly clear production, which opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, a scared wariness defines and confines the existences of people in retreat or out for conquest at a Catskills resort in 1960.
Ruin has taught them to ruminate that life does things to you — random, cruel things — that must always be guarded against. “The world has a wish for you, and it’s never good,” says Eva Adler (a masterly Mercedes Ruehl), a wealthy German Jew who, with her husband, caught “the last boat out” of the homeland two decades earlier. Her daughter, Lili (Lily Rabe), who grew up in gloomy, insular splendor in Manhattan, remembers her mother singing to her, “The Nazis haven’t found us/But darling, they’re all around us.”
Eva probably never used those exact words. Lili has a way of telling lies that are in essence true. Fey, fragile and golden-haired, she’s the princess in a tower in a fairy tale, waiting for deliverance from the captivity of her vigilant dragon mother. Small wonder that when she meets the man she anoints as her savior knight — Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion), a handsome WASP — what enchants her is that he looks, she tells him, “like nothing ever happened to you.” That notion may well be the biggest tale of all.
People rarely talk about doing or having done things in the precisely and exquisitely written “American Plan”; instead they speak of what happened to them. Not only Lili but also the other characters seem under a kind of enchantment that keeps them paralyzed in passivity.
Out of such innately inactive types Mr. Greenberg has woven a drama that crackles with friction and a muted suspense, stoked by the throb of stifled desires. The people in “The American Plan” bring to mind the caution-crippled characters of Henry James, just as this drama’s plot evokes the James novella “Washington Square,” another tale of an heiress trapped by parental tyranny.
But what this production brings out so beautifully is how Mr. Greenberg — unlike James, who longed for and never achieved success as a playwright — combines novelistic nuance with theatrical flash. There probably isn’t a more consciously literary play on the boards in Manhattan now (well, from the past century, anyway) than “The American Plan,” which is as precisely patterned as a sonnet by Milton. Yet Mr. Grindley and his cast make the play as engaging as a potboiling soap opera.
A playwright of steady and ambitious output, Mr. Greenberg has established himself as a specialist in the lives of the fearful. (His play “The Dazzle,” produced in 2002, was about those ultimate shut-ins the Collyer brothers.) And he never presents fear as merely an individual trait, but as the product, at least in part, of societal shaping. It is significant that “The American Plan” is set in 1960, at the juncture of two decades with very different historical associations.
For in its look and surface sensibility, “The American Plan” suggests the quintessential 1950s Broadway play. The whimsical, eccentric, fantasy-prone young heroine; the handsome drifter who wanders into her life; the music of yearning that seems to hum in everyone’s mind: such elements, typical of a work by, say, William Inge, are conspicuously in evidence here.
But Mr. Greenberg brings sharp but compassionate hindsight to the era that places it in the context of its immediate past and future: of the anxious aftermath of World War II — and the propriety of the prosperity that succeeded it — and the heady freedom of the 1960s. (The play’s final scene takes place in 1970, with the noise of student protesters in the background.) The suspense of “The American Plan” derives from our wondering whether Lili and Nick will catch, as it were, the last boat out of the 1950s.
If they do, they must overcome the formidable Eva, and Ms. Ruehl’s performance makes it apparent this is no small task. A statuesque woman who wears her sorrows like jewelry, Eva is witty, well bred and at times cozy in the manner of a doting Jewish aunt. But she is also, always, on the qui vive, ready to deflect any bid to break into the willfully isolated world she has created.
In the play’s first scene, when Nick asks Lili, “You’re with your mother?” she answers, “Forever,” in a voice that sounds chilled by the crypt. Ms. Ruehl’s Eva fully justifies the implications of that sound.
It should be said that Ms. Rabe, a distinctive young actress who has appeared in “Steel Magnolias” and “Crimes of the Heart,” holds her own against the imposing Ms. Ruehl. She understands Lili as a 1950s archetype, and she summons exactly the neurotic gamines of the period, played by Julie Harris and Kim Stanley, right down to the otherworldly inflections. (She looks every inch the Eisenhower-era ingénue in Jonathan Fensom’s summer dresses.)
She also evokes, in addition to the expected tremulous anguish, the instinctive strategist within Lili’s wayward, seemingly irrational behavior. Not for nothing is Lili her mother’s daughter.
You don’t realize how good Mr. Campion’s interpretation of the clean-cut, Ivy League Nick is until the play reveals the history behind the pose. “The American Plan” is made up of carefully layered revelations that should not be described in advance. Suffice it to say that Nick is by no means the tabula rasa that Lili longs for him to be. Everyone in “The American Plan” has been written upon, densely and in indelible ink.
That presumably includes Olivia Shaw (nicely underplayed by Brenda Pressley), Eva and Lili’s companion and caretaker, though she reveals little about herself. Being an African-American at that time and place, she doesn’t need to. In the role of an acquaintance of Nick’s, who drops by like an ambassador from WASPland in the second act, Austin Lysy slyly creates a character who for all his cultural differences from Eva is the one most on her wavelength.
Manhattan Theater Club staged the 1990 New York productions of “The American Plan.” And while I didn’t see them, I can’t imagine their being more artful than this one. Everything matches and echoes everything else in this interpretation from Mr. Grindley (who directed the Tony-winning revival of “Journey’s End”), but in ways that creep up on you.
Water, for example, seems to be the dominant element in Mr. Fensom’s lyrical set, a lake of reflective surfaces centered on a revolving dock. Eva says she doesn’t trust the seductive, limitlessness ocean; she comes to the Catskills because she likes the “tangible borders” of mountains. Yet everything in life as imagined in “The American Plan” is built on water. The choice is to plunge in and swim or to drown, in another way, on shore.
At the dawn of the 1960s, a girl on the cusp of womanhood finds romance in the Catskills with a handsome stranger.
No, it's not the musical version of Dirty Dancing, which hasn't yet arrived in Times Square. That show will cater to a different audience than Richard Greenberg's The American Plan (* * * 1/2 out of four), now making its Broadway debut via the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Lili, the ingénue in Plan, which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is the sweetly willful but damaged daughter of Eva Adler, a formidable widow who escaped the Holocaust but not personal tragedy. Mother and daughter spend their summers across the lake from one of those resort hotels where vacationers of another era feasted on rich food and oily comedians.
When a wholesome but mysterious young man named Nick literally swims up on Lili's shore, he asks if she's there with her mom. "Forever," Lili says. In the moment, it sounds like a wisecrack, but her reply is really an omen of darker things awaiting the soon-to-be lovers.
Though Greenberg's breezy facility with language can run the risk of being mistaken for glibness, Plan deals unflinchingly with some dense, bitter truths: the selfishness of a mother's love, the convenience of lies and half-truths, the cruelly arbitrary nature of catastrophic events.
Greenberg's characters are, of course, thwarted by their own frailties as well. Eva (played by Mercedes Ruehl) believes that she wants Lili (Lily Rabe) to be happy. But as she later tells Nick, the best her daughter can hope for is "an intricately unhappy life, I'm afraid, lived out in compensatory splendor."
Ruehl brings great style and compassion to Eva. But the real star of this production is Rabe, who continues to blossom into one of the most beguiling stage actresses of her generation.
When she lowers her voice, you can hear traces of Rabe's mother, Jill Clayburgh; at other times, her Lili is a wounded animal. Rabe reveals the tortured sensuality beneath Lili's tender exterior — and, more sadly, how that exterior hardens.
Kieran Campion and Austin Lysy lend fine support as Nick and a young man from his past who thickens the plot. And Brenda Pressley is a wise, gently witty presence as Eva's put-upon housekeeper, Olivia.
At one point, Lili asks Olivia at what age one is too old to start being happy. The American Plan offers no encouraging answers — or startling revelations, for that matter. But it is written with characteristic eloquence, and beautifully played.
The simple, sturdy wood frame around Jonathan Fensom's set for "The American Plan" looks like it might belong on a Norman Rockwell painting. But in Richard Greenberg's quietly melancholy 1990 play, receiving a delicate revival on Broadway from the Manhattan Theater Club, that standardized perception of American life turns out to be an uncomfortable trap for all five characters. Regardless of the lengths to which they are willing to go to secure their happiness, these are lives cramped by denial, defeat, compromise, lies and fabrications -- which is not to say this is a gloomy piece of theater.
Greenberg modeled his characters on the central triangle from Henry James' "Washington Square" and its theatrical adaptation "The Heiress," relocating the tragicomedy to the Catskills in summer 1960. Employing a subtlety and perspicacity -- not to mention a conversational formality -- that could fairly be described as Jamesian, a rich sprinkling of clever aphorisms and a tart social commentary that recalls Jane Austen, Greenberg brings feather-light brush strokes to what's essentially a somber work.
If the play's themes don't crystallize as swiftly or satisfyingly as they should, it's nonetheless an absorbing reflection on relationships carved out of disappointment and resignation in an era immediately before nonconformity became a more available option.
Within Fensom's frame is a section of lakeside wharf that from various angles dominates all but the play's final coda, providing a jumping-off point for emotionally jittery Lili Adler (Lily Rabe) as she attempts to bring about change in her life. She identifies a vehicle for that change in preppy hunk Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion), who takes her breath away when he emerges from the lake, the water glistening on his period-inappropriate six-pack.
Situated across from a popular hotel, Lily's summer home is described at one point as her castle keep, with her haughty German-Jewish mother Eva (Mercedes Ruehl) serving as the moat and Eva's sphinx-like maid-turned-companion Olivia (Brenda Pressley) as the sentry.
None of these circumspect characters is exactly as he or she appears, and all seem to have assembled a persona around codified roles, including Gil (Austin Lysy), the second charming, urbane young WASP to surface and linger on the Adlers' wrong side of the lake. "Two of you in one summer," marvels Eva, hinting that his arrival is no coincidence.
Much of the low-key tension in the characters' interplay, teased out with a gentle but coaxing hand by director David Grindley, stems from their exertions to keep up a facade or to lock in the elements that will allow them to construct one.
The big guessing game centers around the m.o. of imperious, widowed Eva, known to the hotel revelers she disparages as "the Czarina." Shadowed by her own past as a Holocaust refugee whose inventor husband withered at the hands of exploitative gentile businessmen, Eva's every exchange comes cloaked in judgment and suspicion. Is she facilitating Lili's escape plan or blocking it? Is she overprotective or merely controlling and destructive, unwilling to contemplate being left alone?
With Ruehl's thick accent (she sounds like Uta Hagen in "Mrs. Klein") and knowing delivery, her chewy performance removes much of the doubt from these questions -- if ever there was any in Greenberg's text. But the thesp's dour flamboyance and natural authority make Eva a fascinating figure, her motives so shaped by the fatalism of history and experience that even at her most abrasive, she's never entirely unsympathetic.
The center of the play, however, is Lili, given a marvelous, fragile complexity by Rabe, who is rapidly growing into one of the most compelling young actresses on the New York stage. A "pre-occupational" Sarah Lawrence dropout, Lili appears helpless one minute, then manipulative, playful and unnervingly direct the next, embroidering the truth to suit her needs. She's mesmerizing as she toys with Nick, her mood continually clouding over, then brightening again, or as she moves warily around her mother, waiting for Eva's machinations to derail her fairy tale.
"Inside her head is a sort of masked ball; you never know with whom you are dancing," Eva explains of her daughter. "Lili is not charmingly eccentric. She is not your garden-variety neurotic." True to that description and to the character's Jamesian roots, Lili is a beguiling throwback to the exquisitely breakable porcelain heroines of 19th century literature, but she's also flinty and calculating. Rabe embraces her shifting nuances with mercurial intelligence and sensitivity.
In the supporting roles, Pressley's deadpan unflappability shows judicious glimpses of the resentment beneath her loyalty, while Campion and Lysy both embody the golden, albeit deceptive invulnerability of privilege.
Until things get complicated, Campion's Nick seems to evolve according to Lili's romanticized perception of him, as a prince. At one point he even makes the fanciful claim "I cause happiness; that's what I do," and he appears convinced it's true. Nick's an aspiring architect, and his lofty dream to build a whole city is irresistible to Lili given her yen for elaborate fictions.
Even if there's something naggingly insubstantial about the minor-key play -- partly due to its over-reliance on Eva as the means by which liberating plans subside into numbing reality -- the acerbic wit of Greenberg's dialogue and the frequent acuity of his psychological insights keep it engrossing.
After the shimmering glow of Mark McCullough's lighting has faded in the final scene into the suffocating airlessness of the Adlers' Upper West Side New York apartment, Eva's words from the close of the first act about "an intricately unhappy life... lived out in compensatory splendor" continue to resonate.