Friday, January 23, 2009

The American Plan

GRADE: B

By Richard Greenberg, Directed by David Grindley. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. (CLOSED)

It seems to come down to this: Critics say this is a very good production. As to the script, some go for Richard Greenberg's play about a budding 1960 romance in the Catskills and the mother who interferes; some don't. Several (Brantley at the Times, Windman at AMNY, Teachout at WSJ) have strong opinions about both writer and material going into the show. Everyone has high praise for Lily Rabe specifically and the rest of the cast (including Mercedes Ruehl) in general.



The New Yorker A
(John Lahr) From [its] somewhat incredible beginning, with its glib exposition that smacks of romantic comedy, Greenberg reverses our narrative expectations and spins a psychologically astute, compelling study of narcissistic delusion—his version of “The Heiress,” in which the payoff is not revenge but revelation about the stranglehold of symbiosis. The title, “The American Plan,” is an ironic reference to the hotel’s eating arrangements, which include three square meals a day. The play, however, is about greed of an altogether different kind: financial, psychic, and sexual.

TheaterMania A
(Andy Probst) 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.

NYTimes A
(Ben Brantley) 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.

NYTheatre A-
(Martin Denton) Back in 1960, when Richard Greenberg's The American Plan takes place, Broadway theatre-going was still a habit for a large segment of the public; frothy, engaging, but ultimately inconsequential entertainments were very much the rule, distinguished more by sparkly dialogue and stars than by their content. Appropriately enough, The American Plan is precisely this sort of theatre experience, and though seeing a piece of this ilk is hardly habitual nowadays, it makes for a pleasing enough diversion even at the luxury prices that the best seats at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre command. Thanks, particularly, to Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe, who give terrific, larger-than-life performances as the mother and daughter at the center of this play, The American Plan emerges as one of the season's most substantial hits thus far.

Hartford Courant A-
(Malcolm Johnson) Grindley's production subtly emphasizes the underlying tensions between Rabe's winsome girl and Ruehl's hard-edged, all-knowing mother. In a theater world where most conflicts pit father and son against each other, Greenberg has portrayed the adversarial relationship of mother and daughter in a telling and fascinating early play from the eloquent writer of "Take Me Out" and "Three Days of Rain."

USA Today A-
(Elysa Gardner) 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.

TalkinBroadway A-
(Matthew Murray) [The] balance is tricky to maintain, especially in a play that’s alternately angry and forlorn, optimistic and hopeless, and caustic but tentative. Yet if Greenberg’s play, which MTC premiered Off-Broadway in 1990, is often as schizophrenic as its two central characters, the daughter-mother anti-team of Lili and Eva Adler, you’ll see no evidence of this from Grindley. He approaches this precise dramatic muddling of sex, romance, and rebellion in the 1960 Catskills as to highlight both its inner totalitarian terribleness and the latent humanity beneath that promises better things down the line.

The Philadelphia Inquirer A-
(Howard Shapiro)
Lily Rabe's portrayal keeps the daughter shrouded in mystery - is she mentally ill or does she bear the scars of a domineering mom who must control her in order to keep her? Kieran Campion (Journey's End) is the young man under her spell. Campion has an endearing stage innocence, and he uses it to outstanding effect in building his wily character. Austin Lysy portrays another guest from the resort, whose appearance in Act 2 adds a new dimension to the way the characters push and pull one another. Under David Grindley's direction, Ruehl - who has a Tony for Lost in Yonkers and an Oscar for The Fisher King - sets the tone for the subtle battles the play depicts. Her accent is weaponry; the words come out intensely, nonchalantly delivered to cover a monumental audacity. She moves her head sharply, then focuses with riveting eyes, like an owl seeking prey.

Curtain Up B+
(Elyse Sommer) While not a great play, Greenberg's dialogue still resonates with wit. With the magnificent Mercedes Ruehl as the mother and Lily Rabe as her daughter, this revival should help Manhattan Theatre Club patrons to forget and forgive their recent To Be or Not to Be and Romantic Poetry.

Variety B+
(David Rooney) 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.

Time Out NY B+
(David Cote) The “plan” of the title (it’s a dietary program at the resort) could be interpreted as the American tendency to rise socially by any means, or to slip the shackles of the Old World. Whether or not Greenberg’s protagonists achieve freedom, their struggle is always wittily transfixing.


Backstage B+ Grindley does not call attention to Greenberg's points but allows them to seep into the audience's consciousness. Similarly, the precise performances don't telegraph the author's intentions but slyly suggest them. Lily Rabe carefully builds Lily's defensive edifice of irrational behavior against a world of disappointment and what she sees as her mother's oppressive love. In the final scene, which takes place 10 years after the main event, Lily has created another protective shell — this one of mature politeness. When confronted with a repentant Nick, her protection shatters for a harrowing moment, and she dissolves in tears. But then she holds up a hand, and the armor snaps back into place. The transformation is just as terrifying as the breakdown.

Financial Times B+
(Brendan Lemmon) Once again we are in postwar, pre-hippie America, where anti-Semitism, homophobia and various other regressive attitudes are in bloom. Unlike Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, Richard Greenberg’s evocative play The American Plan, now in a Broadway revival from Manhattan Theatre Club, evokes the era without a whiff of retro chic. The only ethos this drama might be accused of is nostalgia.

NYMag B+
(Scott Brown) Richard Greenberg’s plays are made of very fine, filigreed dialogue designed to be declaimed, then disclaimed, then reclaimed, in a restless shuffle of philosophical and psychological rummy. There’s a hyperverbal autism to the Greenberg oeuvre (best displayed in Take Me Out, where aphasic pitchers squared off against logorrheic hitters). His characters do not converse so much as declare things, as if they’re all competing to be the quippiest elegist at Noël Coward’s funeral... All of this can easily defeat a lesser production... but Plan is light on its feet, thanks to the delicate direction of David Grindley (Journey’s End).

Associated Press B
(Michael Kuchwara)The chatter goes on too long, but director David Grindley manages to minimize the aimlessness. He gives the evening a stylish sense of movement with a series of swirling curtains that divide the scenes. Most of them are played out on designer Jonathan Fensom's atmospheric woodsy setting with a pier jutting into the lake. Another plus: 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. And Lily is a willful young woman, in a way just as controlling in a passive-aggressive way as her formidable mother.

NYPress B-
(Leonard Jacobs) Greenberg’s characters serve dual functions: to entertain and to distract. That’s why it’s not hard to be seduced by, for example, Ruehl’s pitch-perfect accent or how Grindley implies in his staging that something other than an employer-employee relationship may exist between Eva and Olivia.This is a play that telegraphs its twists if you know how to read the code... It’s the way Gil acts on their secrets, history and truth that sustains us, not the story itself. Indeed, the holes in the play and the mystifyingly staged final scene aside, the critical mistake of this revival—and it pains me to say it—is the miscast Rabe.

NY Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz)
David Grindley (“Journey’s End”) directs for Manhattan Theatre Club, which mounted the play Off-Broadway in 1990. 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, whose skepticism is systemic. She believes what she’s told Lili since her infancy: “Happiness ... is for other people.”

AMNY B-
(Matt Windman) In our opinion, there are far too many great American playwrights whose work is overlooked to justify the lavish treatment thrown upon Richard Greenberg by New York’s major not-for-profit theaters. But The American Plan, in spite of its thin plot and problematic second half, is one of Greenberg’s most sincere plays, especially in its delicate exploration of personal identity... David Grindley’s quiet, intimate production benefits from an excellent five-actor ensemble led by Mercedes Ruehl as mother Eva and Lily Rabe as daughter Lily.

Newday B-
(Linda Winer) 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. The Manhattan Theatre Club first produced Richard Greenberg's character study Off-Broadway in 1990, and has revived it in the company's Broadway venue as a vehicle for the compulsively watchable Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe.

The Observer C+
(John Helipern) The current revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club of Thwe American Plan [sic] (1990) provides a vivid example of his prodigious articulacy. Whereas the unpretentious Mr. Friel is a natural poet, Mr. Greenberg’s self-conscious literary dramas always strike me as on the verge. The American Plan—inspired by Henry James’ Washington Square, along with a splash of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie—is archly poetic. It’s scattershot and overwritten, striving for effect. You sense too much that Mr. Greenberg is making it up as he goes along.

Hollywood Reporter C+
(Frank Schenck) It's strange that the Manhattan Theatre Club would have chosen to once again sign on for The American Plan. This play by Richard Greenberg was given an intimate off-Broadway production by the company nearly 20 years ago, and it proves no less problematic in this uneven Broadway revival.

NY1 C+
(Roma Torre) Despite some fine performances, in the end "The American Plan" fails to live up to its intriguing premise... It's fine to raise questions, but Greenberg's script is too ambiguous for its own good. The characters, who sound more like mouthpieces for the author, ring false. The performances, however - the two leads in particular - couldn't be more honest. Lily Rabe is once again acing a difficult role, turning the hyper-intelligent Lili into an endearing neurotic, and Mercedes Ruehl is simply astonishing, using impeccable technique to make the intimidating, old world Eva all too real. You can practically smell her overpowering perfume.

NYPost C+
(Barbara Hoffman) Greenberg's at his best when his characters float on a stream of their own musings - it's how Take Me Out took off, how The Dazzle dazzled. Here, in this earlier effort, they're more stunted: It's hard to believe anyone, even a writer for Time, would use the verb "purpled."... there's too much talk, too little action. It made me long to swim across the lake and party with the Kahksteins.

NorthJersey.com C-
(Robert Feldberg) The Manhattan Theatre Club first presented Richard Greenberg's The American Plan 19 years ago. Its revival of the play, which opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is a much more compelling production. What hasn't changed is the play itself; it isn't any more persuasive than it was before. Greenberg, who went on to write Three Days of Rain and Take Me Out, has a provocative premise, but it's undercut by characters who are rather hard to swallow.

DC Theatre Scene C-
(Richard Seff) If my tone seems mocking, I apologize, for clearly Richard Greenberg was trying to write a serious play about some complicated people, each bringing pain to their loved ones when they only meant to bring comfort and joy. But he was just beginning when he wrote this, and the 19 years between productions have not been kind to it...I don’t mean the production should be dismissed out of hand; it was well produced, but only Ms. Ruehl as Momma and Kieran Campion and Austin Lypsy as the WASP friends who drop in on the ladies in the Catskills seemed happy up there. Lily Rabe, a fine actress, was not helped much by her playwright for Lili in the writing seems at times autistic, temperamental, or afflicted with bipolar disorder. That’s not an easy task for an actress especially when she must also be charming, likable and a leading lady in a romantic comedy with a twist. Brenda Pressley, a lovely actress, is playing a black maid who has the kind of relationship with her white boss lady that can only be conceived in the mind of a writer. I won’t call is miscasting - I call it miswriting. Ms. Pressley was in another play, one in which her simple cardigan sweater and pearls would have been more appropriate.

Total Theater C-
(Simon Saltzman) Currently represented on Broadway with his excellent revision of the book for the musical Pal Joey, Greenberg has written a number of plays, including Eastern Standard, Take Me Out, The Dazzle and Three Days of Rain, that support the consensus that he is a darn good playwright. All his plays are known for intriguing dramatic content, clever dialogue and their elements of mystery – not a bad combo. The American Plan, in particular, has a darkly romanticized edge that makes it unique in his canon. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that goes seriously wrong in David Grindley’s staging, but it has partly to do with the way the entire production seems to unravel incrementally as it progresses. The cast is strong, but the production/scenic design by Jonathan Fensom is annoyingly distracting.

Wall St. Journal F
(Terry Teachout) Richard Greenberg is back on Broadway yet again, this time with a revival of "The American Plan," the 1990 play that put him on the map. It is, like all his other plays, repellently glib, and seeing it in tandem with "Six Degrees of Separation" also suggests that it is . . . oh, let's be nice and call it derivative...Other people like Mr. Greenberg's stuff, so it may be that I'm temperamentally deaf to his charms -- but I doubt it. Just because Broadway audiences laugh at a play doesn't make it funny. Or smart. Or good.

TM A 13; NYT A 13; ; TNY A 13; NYTR A- 12; PI A- 12; HC A- 12; USA A- 12; TB A- 12; NYMAG B+ 11; CU B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; Variety B+ 11; BS B+ 11; FT B+ 11; AP B 10; NYDN B- 9; AMNY B- 9; ND B- 9; NYPR b- 9; HR C+ 8; NY1 C+ 8; TO C+ 8; NYP C+ 8; NJC C- 6; DCTS C- 6; TT c- 6; WSJ F 1; TOTAL = 262/ 27 =9.70 = B

1 comment:

tarhearted said...

e don't ever let the Wall Street Journal review me.

Yikes.