The American Plan by Richard Greenberg
Ustinov Studio, Bath; Reviewed 11/03/2013
“You look as if nothing has ever happened to you”
We are by a lake set against the backdrop of the Catskill Mountains. It is summer, it is the 1960s, and Lili Adler has just met the man she wants to marry. So begins Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan, the first in a trilogy of plays that mark the return of the Ustinov’s ‘American Season’ after its success in 2012.
Having directed its previous revival on Broadway in 2009, David Grindley (of Journey’s End fame) leads a strong ensemble in a typically uncluttered and unfussy production. Much of its power comes from the beautiful lake-side design by Jonathan Fensom, whose delicate use of colour and glossy black floor evokes a wide lake landscape in the confines of the Ustinov. Teamed with Gregory Clarke’s sound design, which exploits sparse piano for the scene changes and almost continual nature soundscape, as well as Jason Taylor’s gently shifting lighting design, the overall effect is of a place where time is standing still. Fensom also makes good use of a floor-to-ceiling length curtain to first create this sense of space, and finally to enclose it.
At its heart, The American Plan is a tightly woven, bittersweet tale of love and loss, centred on a complicated mother-daughter relationship. By reputation and first appearance, Lili’s mother Eva – a German-Jewish WWII refugee of considerable means – is the quintessential mother-in-law from hell; played with just the right amount of calculation and faux-melodrama by Diana Quick. As the play progresses, it was Eva who challenged most my preconceptions and I found my loyalties changing back and forth. This is the great triumph of Greenberg’s script – everyone lies, so you never quite know who to trust. Chief liar seems to be Eva’s daughter (played with a fierce honesty by Emily Taaffe), who is at once disarming, charming and annoying. But she is quickly matched by love interest Nick (Luke Allen-Gale) who oscillates between sympathetic and manipulator, while the late arrival of Gil (portrayed by Mark Edel-Hun, who deserves a special mention for exploiting every last ounce of comedy/irony from his lines) adds a delightful and heartbreaking twist – as well as revealing probably the biggest lie of them all. But although the cast all played their roles with relish and humour, the overall performance was occasionally uneven and lacked some spontaneity. And while the careful choreography of scenes made good use of the small stage, it did feel somewhat over-rehearsed in its placement – something that might relax over the run.
The American Plan seems, in all respects, to be a counter to the famous ‘American Dream’ – in Greenberg’s America, rather than being given the freedom to build a happy life on one’s merit, his characters are held in a kind of stasis: wishes and dreams compromised, love lost, and happiness the privilege of others. It is these themes that stay with you long after the curtain has fallen. A beautifully written, engrossing and mercurial play that kicks off the ‘American Season’ in admirable fashion.