The American Plan

  • Date:
    January 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Mothers rarely get a break when it comes to the outside world's evaluation of their mothering. Amanda Wingfield suffers terribly at the pens of critics because of her attempts to run the lives of Laura and Tom in "Glass Menagerie." Then there's Mama Rose, the harridan who stage-managed her daughters till they finally ran off.

    Margaret is another. This fiercely overprotective mother in "Light in the Piazza" is a woman desperate to see that her mentally-challenged adult child isn't taken advantage of by a man. She says of her daughter, "She's not what she seems. She's very young for her age." The same can be said for Lili, but unlike the generous and openly loving Margaret who finally sees the wisdom in letting go, Lili's mother Ava is your classic witch. Or so it seems.

    In Richard Greenberg's 1990 play, "The American Plan," we first meet Lili as she's sitting on her dock reading. A slight, pretty woman with long blonde hair and an intelligent face, it's not surprising that she attracts the attention of the handsome Nick when he hauls himself out of the water where she's sitting. The chemistry between them that sizzles from the get-go immediately accelerates as the two, both quick-tongued and articulate, get to know each other.

    He tells her he's a journalist for Time magazine and is vacationing with his family across the lake at a Catskill hotel, a strange choice of resort for a wealthy WASP in the 1960s (for which we never get a satisfactory explanation), and Lili confesses she already knows: she's gone to that hotel often and has seen him with his girlfriend, Mindy. It turns out he's been eyeing her as well and that meeting was no accident.

    But there's something strange about Lili, an odd intensity in her behavior that makes her seem inordinately immature for one who's almost 21. Her questioning of Nick is too personal, too intrusive considering they've just met. Lili asks: "Is Mindy rich? Is she a nymphomaniac?" Certainly these inquiries would be off-putting to most men, but Nicky is tolerant of them.

    Lili's immaturity is further confirmed when Olivia, a "well-spoken Negro" who is the family maid but not a maid, summons Lili home for tea. Now we get to that mother. Ava. A German refugee who escaped from the Nazis and married a man who left her a wealthy single mother. A large woman with a stentorian voice, Ava appears wise, savvy, and very protective of her daughter. Though she certainly overpowers her slightly built daughter, her words convince us that Lili's welfare is her only interest.

    And she's on to Nick. Behind Lili's back, she investigates and learns what the gullible Lili never even questioned. Nick is not what he seems, he has an agenda, and he makes a dirty deal with Ava that must remain secret, because, she explains, she wants her daughter to be happy, and her daughter wants Nick.

    And then the whole thing comes crumbling down. If we had any empathy for Ava, it is gone in one cataclysmic moment. Lili's outburst consumes all the air in the theater, screaming at how Ava destroys everything in her life, yet Ava sits there non-responsive, almost bored, as though she's seen these tantrums before and they're best ignored.

    "American Plan" is a play that will leave you gasping. Greenberg has created stunning characters in Ava and Lili, brought to life by the incomparable Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe. But as magnificent as Rabe is, it is impossible to take your eyes off of Ruehl. She is a mesmerizing actor who owns the stage. Her Ava is someone you'd want to join for tea even though you know you'd have to watch your back.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus



    There used to be a show called A Couple of White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. This show could be called A Bunch of White People Sitting Around Kvetching. Alternately it could be called The Light in the Piazza in the Dark in the Catskills With No Music.

    In The Light on the Piazza, the show over which everyone in New York except my date and I went gaga, a woman takes her twenty-something daughter to Italy in the early 1960's. The mother is doing this because her daughter is not normal, having been kicked in the head by a pony (I�m not kidding), and who knows when the chance might come again for a few months of sun and sightseeing? When the daughter falls in love with a nice Italian boy, the mother decides to let the two of them get married because the guy adores her daughter and is rich as Croesus. The dim daughter will fare better in Italy than in the glare of NYC.

    In The American Plan, we again have a mother-daughter duo, only this mother does not want her daughter to marry a-n-y-o-n-e. The daughter is unusual. She is delicate. She also flips out every once in awhile. None of this is explained; we just get to watch. We also get to see a few episodes of the mother destroying a budding romance. Again, we never know why Moms takes a turn to the dark side like some Hitchcock villain crossed with the Wicked Witch. She just does. And because we never find out why anything is happening, we fail to care about these people, so our visit to the theater ends up being kind of pointless, which is pointless.

    The fault, dear Brutus, can be laid at the feet of the playwright, Richard Greenberg. There is nothing a cast can do when the script is unable to sit up and take nourishment. All they can do is pitch in like a hospice staff, making the patient as comfortable as it can be while it wraps itself around the sound of its own voice. While Dirty Dancing is going on over on one side of the lake, this sad story stagnates on the other, and, in the author�s words, becomes �an intricately unhappy life lived out in compensatory splendor.�

    So the actors soldier along. Mercedes Ruehl plays a woman of a certain age who for some reason acts much older than she appears and burdens herself with an accent and facial gestures lifted directly from Victor Borge. Lily Rabe as her daughter Olivia spends a lot of time going from zero to sixty and then making you wonder how soon it will happen again. Kieran Campion and Austin Lysy are fine in their roles of new paramour and surprise guest. I think I liked Brenda Pressly�s work, but the part of the mother�s companion is gratuitous and without purpose.

    The directing does nothing to help. The actors each seem to be in separate bubbles. This could have something to do with the staging itself: the set is so dominated by a revolving dock that when the critical scenes happen they are confined to downstage �- way down stage. The set is beautiful, though, and the illusion of the lakeside atmosphere is convincing. It would have worked � were the play actually set on the dock.

    There is only one reference to the �American Plan� in this play. It is the special deal at the hotel on the other side of the lake: sleep here and eat all you can for one flat fee, including games and activities to stop you from ever actually relaxing in the middle of some of the most beautiful country on Earth � a smorgasbord impressive in quantity but not quality. You can be in paradise and the American Plan will make certain you never notice.

    The American Plan is an assortment of words, with some memorable phrases and some decent acting, the sum of which fills you up, but doesn�t leave you satisfied.

    Tulis McCall


    What the press had to say.....

    "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." & "Greenberg has woven a drama that crackles with friction and a muted suspense, stoked by the throb of stifled desires."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "David Grindley directs... His staging is straightforward and clear, but repetitive. After each scene, the dock rotates behind a sweeping curtain. The constant �here we spin again� gets dull. The performances, fortunately, never do. Campion, Pressley and a particularly fine Lysy bring nuance to their roles. In presence and performance, Tony- and Oscar-winner Ruehl is big and bold (that goes double for her accent) as Eva."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "A comedy that takes itself very seriously -- is getting a questionable Broadway revival" & "The plot wiggles along, matching its farfetchedness with language well beyond what some of the characters would be likely to utter." & "Although David Grindley�s direction is generally proficient..., the performances are uneven... Eva, the usually excellent Ruehl overacts, sometimes even flirting with the audience. As Lili, Rabe ratchets undesirability several notches higher than the part requires." & "So why is �The American Plan� revived when far more deserving plays are not? Because preciosity all too easily passes for perception and weirdness is readily mistaken for originality."
    John Simon

    "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." & "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."
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "Watching "The American Plan" is a bit like reading a mysterious short story about people you don't quite believe, though you still need to know what happens to them." & "Doesn't add up to much more than a social study about the oppression of a wide assortment of tyrannies. And the production, directed by David Grindley, doesn't always help us sort out the unknowable from the unbelievable in these complicated people."
    Linda Winner

    "My first reaction to the news of Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Richard Greenberg's 1990 The American Plan was "Why?" I recalled the original MTC production as a contrived melodrama peopled with cultural clich�s: the domineering mother, the sheltered daughter, the closeted homosexual. It was a cross between The Glass Menagerie and Tea and Sympathy enlivened only by Joan Copeland's subtle limning of the mother. Well, either I didn't fully appreciate Greenberg's vision or this production's director, David Grindley, has dug deeper into the play's depths. This new Plan is a stronger, more insightful one."
    David Sheward
    Back Stage

    "British director David Grindley... does a fine job of creating a sense of the moment in each scene and subtly emphasizing its dramatic core. In addition to Ruehl, the cast, particularly Rabe, also does well. Yet it's hard to make a connection to these people and their problems. The idea of them is more tantalizing than the characters themselves."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "A mentally fragile young woman; her wily, protective mother; a handsome interloper � sounds like the ingredients for a budding romance, sort of a variation on "The Light in the Piazza," which features a similar triangle. But playwright Richard Greenberg has something more melancholy in mind with his intertwining of the three main characters in "The American Plan," now being thoughtfully revived on Broadway." & "The production is fortunate to have Lily Rabe playing the daughter. This lovely actress exudes an appealing vulnerability even when Lily is being her most obstinate. "
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "A peculiar little play that attempts to explore the underside of our impulses in a world beyond our control. Playwright Richard Greenberg, who's known for coating his works with an intellectual gloss, certainly delivers on that front. And yet despite some fine performances, in the end "The American Plan" fails to live up to its intriguing premise." & "The characters, who sound more like mouthpieces for the author, ring false. The performances, however - the two leads (Lily Rabe & Mercedes Ruehl) in particular - couldn't be more honest."
    Roma Torre

    "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" & "Even if there's something naggingly insubstantial about the minor-key play ... the acerbic wit of Greenberg's dialogue and the frequent acuity of his psychological insights keep it engrossing.
    David Rooney