'Summer, 1976' review — Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht share a breezy summer friendship
Read our review of Summer, 1976 on Broadway, the new play starring Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht and written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn.
Opposites attract – and not only when it comes to romance, but friendships as well. That’s the thesis of Summer, 1976, a pleasant wisp of a play with an A-list pedigree that has all the dramatic heft of catching a few rays.
Written by David Auburn and directed by Daniel Sullivan, who collaborated on the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, this new work provides a not-so-surprising reminder about a simple fact of life. People come into our lives and then they go, but they leave a mark – whether we want to acknowledge that or not.
At its best, this Manhattan Theatre Club presentation offers a chance to observe Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht, a pair of seasoned stage animals, together in their natural habitat. They’re a joy to watch in action – or, well, sitting. They’re both in chairs for practically the entirety of the show.
Seated at either end of a long rectangular table, the Ohio moms they play are a study in contrast. Diana (Linney) sports a black tee and pants, stylish loafers, and a strict curling-ironed coif. Alice (Hecht) is slightly slouchier and sports a patterned peasant dress, suede boots, and a loose, laid-back hairstyle.
Over the course of 100 intermissionless minutes, they flash back to America’s bicentennial – a time of independence and, it turns out, interdependence. Diana, an uptight single mom, made and taught art then. Alice, a free-spirited housewife, was married with a daughter. The women met through their kids. During a few months, their initial chilly mutual dislike melted into a warm and solid friendship.
Save for a surprise here and there, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. This show is all talk – but the women rarely speak to each other thanks to Auburn’s story structure. Diana and Alice recall their brief history in direct addresses to the audience. It’s as if they’re giving reality show testimonials. The nagging questions: Who are they supposed to be talking to, and why are these two telling this story now? We never really know.
The construction can’t help but have a distancing effect. But on the plus side, Auburn packs his script with humor, vivid and lived-in details, and lines that sometimes nail the way people talk. That includes Diana's tangy observation about Alice: “She just thought she was unconventional because her house was messy.”
Over the summer, the bond between the women sneaks up on them amid ups and downs, laughs and arguments. They’re tugged closer together by everyday things like childcare and the subject of art, plus a major twist in Alice’s marriage to Doug, an Ohio State professor. When Doug comes into the picture, Diana speaks on his behalf.
Like summertime and lemonade, the two actresses are a great pair. Linney radiates smarts and her no-nonsense frankness is an ideal fit for Diana. Hecht, who never gives an ordinary stage performance, makes Alice likable and quirky.
Sullivan gives the actresses room to do what they do best while injecting an occasional direction to “stand up” and “sit back down.” Costumes by Linda Cho define characters, lighting Japhy Weideman suggests shifts in time, and an abstract backdrop of miniature squares by John Lee Beatty seems to seize inspiration from artist Paul Klee, who figures prominently in the story.
In the end, Diana and Alice reunite by chance at a New York museum decades after their initial meeting. Time goes on. Lives change. There’s an undeniable sweetness and melancholy in that simple reality. That said, it’s not quite enough to make Auburn’s play a Summer to remember.
Photo credit: Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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