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A CurtainUp Review
American Plan

Oh, my dear, how can you take the sadness away from a girl who learned it so early in life? It is not possible. It can't be done..— Eva, whose comment about her daughter is confirmed by Lili' years later when she says Happiness exists. . .but it's for other people.
American Plan
Lily Rabe and Mercedes Ruehl
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Nowadays, plays and movies often have a second life as musicals. Prolific playwright Richard Greenberg has proved his affinity for the musical genre with his new book for Pal Joey (review). However, his 1990 play The American Plan, though set in the Catskill Mountains isn't geared to the audience that made Dirty Dancing a cult film. That's not to say that the plot doesn't feature a romance (the once legendary Catskill hotels' main appeal for young singles, as the room and all-you-can-eat American plan setup was the magnet for their elders). However, instead of the twists and turns of the mambo, The American Plan relies on witty dialogue and intensely emotional scenes to get beneath each character's initial facade.

While Manhattan Theatre Club's premiere production of The American Plan predates Curtainup's existence, I did see and review a production in 1997 when the far western section of 42nd Street still had a number of small black box theaters. Though more modestly staged, the dominant Germanic mother and fragile daughter encountered then have stayed with me (shades of The Glass Menagerie). The American Plan relies on witty dialogue and intensely emotional scenes to get beneath each character's initial facade. this revival should help Manhattan Theatre Club patrons to forget and forgive their recent To Be or Not to Be and Romantic Poetry.

Though Greenberg has stated that he hated the Catskill cottage he once shared with a friend, it is an ideal setting for the play it inspired. The title refers specifically to the 3 meals a day American Plan offered by the hotel we never see but which nevertheless plays a key role in the lives of the three women living in a private house (also never seen), across the lake; but it also resonates on a subtler level when you consider the life plans dictated by the post World War II, pre-Vietnam War societies these characters inhabit—a society where anti-semitism, homophobia. and proper behavior still reigned.

At the heart of the story we have Lili Adler (Lily Rabe), a lovely 20-year-old college dropout straining against the tight leash on which Eva, her mother (Mercedes Ruehl) keeps her. The big question about Lili's yearning to be free from the " forever" tie to Eva is whether the sadness she experienced when very young has made a free and happy life impossible for her. There are also big questions about the imperious Eva: Are her interfering actions those of an overprotective mother? Are they part and parcel of the cautious and suspicious personality shaped by her own losses as a refugee from Nazi Germany whose experience with the American Dream was a bitter triumph thanks to the machinations of the gentile businessmen who insisted that her inventor husband settle for money without credit. It was that settlement which made Lili an heiress but also contributed the the insurmountable sadness of watching her father "wither away " without understanding why.

As both the effervescent, often outrageously outspoken Lili and the flamboyant Eva are not quite who they seem to be when we first meet them, neither is Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion), the hunky young man from the Grossinger-Concord-Kutcher style hotel with whom Lili falls in love when he literally swims into her life. The same holds true for Gil Harbison (Austin Lysy), the second and late arriving good looking stranger. There's even an aura of mystery around Olivia (Brenda Pressley), the maid, companion and appointed watchdog to keep Lili out of trouble.

While Rabe and Ruehl are the stars of this enterprise, the two men and the wonderfully understated Pressley contribute mightily to the acting pleasures of this production. The staging by David Grindley is simple but effective. Aided by Jonathan Fensom (who's also responsible for the summery costumes), the idyllic aura of a lakeside resort is vividly evoked with a revolvving dock, and a table and chairs for tea served each day by Olivia each day. The curtains that travel across the stage between scenes are painted to intensify the lake and forest setting. All that turning and sliding gets to be a bit repetitious, but it works. Mark McCullough's lighting adds to the atmospheric richness.

The ten-years-later epilogue in the Adler's Central Park West apartment gives Greenberg a chance to conclude his commentary on how the Vietnam War rang down the final curtain on the strict mores of the Eisenhower era, It also leaves us with a final question about the Adlers: Does the playwright give credence to the old saw about becoming who you hate? Is Eva's hold over Lili truly" forever?quot;

Links to Curtainup reviews of other work by Richard Greenberg
The American Plan (1997 off-Broadway)
Bal Masque/Greenberg, Richard (DC 2006) The Dazzle off-Broadway 2002
Eastern Standard (Off-Off Broadway revival 2003)
Everett Beekin (Los Angeles and NYC 2000, 2001)
The House In Town (Off-Broadway2006)
Hurrah At Last (Off-Broadway 1999)
A Naked Girl on the Appian Way (Broadway 2005)
Pal Joey--book for musical (Broadway 2008)
Take Me Out London 2002, New York 2003
Three Days of Rain/ Los Angeles (Los Angeles 2001)
Three Days of Rain (Berkshires 2002)
The Violet Hour (Broadway premiere 2003)
The Violet Hour / Richard Greenberg(Barrington Stage 2008)
The Violet Hour ( Los Angeles 2008)
The American Plan
By Richard Greenberg
Directed by David Grindley
Cast: Kieran Campion (Nick Lockridge), Austin Lysy (Gil Harbison), Brenda Pressley (Olivia Shaw), Lily Rabe (Lili Adler) and Mercedes Ruehl (Eva Adler).
Dets and costumes by Jonathan Fensom
Lighting by Mark McCullough
Sound by Darron L. West and Bray Poor
Wig design by Tom Watson
Stage manager, Laurie Goldfeder
Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200.
Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 2:00 pm, Sun 7:00; after 1/19: Tuesday @ 7pm, Wednesday @ 2pm & 8pm, Thursday & Friday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 2pm & 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm pm.
From 01/02/09, Opening 01/22/09, Closing 03/15/09--extended to 3/22/09. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer January 24 matinee press performance
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