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The American Plan

Mercedes Ruehl gives a masterful performance in MTC's excellent revival of Richard Greenberg's complex play about a mother and daughter in the 1960s. logo
Lily Rabe, Brenda Pressley, Kieran Campion,
and Mercedes Ruehl in The American Plan
(© Carol Rosegg)
Theatergoers would be hard-pressed these days to find a play as emotionally and thematically complex as Richard Greenberg's The American Plan, now being given an excellent revival by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater under David Grindley's taut direction. Indeed, the title alone has three different meanings.

On one level, it's a description of the vacation package that provides guests with a seemingly endless supply of food at the Catskills resort just across the lake from the home where Eva Adler (Mercedes Ruehl) and her daughter Lili (Lily Rabe) are staying during the summer of 1960. Secondly, the American plan, or maybe more specifically "American dream," is also what Eva's deceased husband had counted on when they arrived in America, having caught one of the last trains out of Germany just before Hitler clamped down on Jewish emigration.

Finally, there's the plan engineered by Nick (played with genuine charm and to the-manor-born ease by Kieran Campion), the attractive young man who swims up to the Adler's dock one day to sweep the high-strung and neurotic Lili (whom Rabe imbues with a sort of spiky Katherine Hepburn antsiness) off her feet. Indeed, Lili has a penchant for telling outlandish lies -- when they first meet she tells Nick that her overbearing mother killed her father -- but the pair seems destined to be together regardless.

While the first encounter between Lili and Nick unfolds in a way that would not be inappropriate for a musical from the Golden Age or a classic black-and-white screwball comedy, the play is at its heart a gorgeous reworking of Henry James' darker Washington Square (better known to many as The Heiress). But here it's Eva, who has seen Lili's hopes for romance dashed by other men, who worries that Nick's intentions might not be completely honorable, a suspicion that's furthered by the arrival of Gil (an ingratiating and commanding turn from Austin Lysy), who may or may not be an old acquaintance of Nick's. Moreover, real-world issues such as Nick's actual business prospects and Lili's emotional instability continually intrude on what has the potential for being an idyllic summer.

In Ruehl's masterful performance, Eva -- who is dubbed "The Czarina" and "The Duchess" by the hotel's guests -- is a loving mother, a ditzy, gossiping hausfrau, and a coolly imperious woman of the world, sometimes concurrently. While The American Plan never returns completely to the sort of ease found in the first scene -- even when Eva presides over afternoon teas, generally served by her patient maid Olivia (a fine turn from Brenda Pressley) -- there is always a veneer of laid-back recreation in the woodsy retreat of golden sunrises and moonlit nights (thanks in large part to Jonathan Fensom's elegant scenic design and Mark McCullough's atmospheric lighting design).

As Greenberg knows, the best laid plans -- American and otherwise -- are not always realized. But MTC's plan to give this show (which they first presented Off-Broadway in 1990) a worthy production has indeed come true.

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