Sometimes she’s still, but no doubt she’s listening. Sometimes she’s hard on a cane, but sturdy enough that you wonder if she needs it. Sometimes her eyes grow and her eyebrows arch so high they recall the design of an ancient Roman viaduct.These are among the more remarkable and memorable qualities of Mercedes Ruehl as imperious, impetuous Eva, a mercurial and cyclonic life force in The American Plan, Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of the 1990 Richard Greenberg play.Yet mercury can be neutralized; cyclones fizzle into clouds.When that happens, what remains is a play less smart, clean and wise than it seems.
By 1960, when The American Plan mostly occurs, Eva, who escaped Hitler’s Germany, has opted for a variation on the assimilation standard of many postwar Jews: She summers in the Catskills, but in her own home, not at the Concord, the Nevele or Grossinger’s. Evoked wispily by Jonathan Fensom’s scenic design, Eva’s home sits across a lake from one such hotel; it’s by swimming across such a lake that a squarejawed Adonis, Nick Lockridge, played by the enviably cheekboned Kieran Champion, arrives at the dock.There he meets Lily, Eva’s striking daughter played by Lily Rabe, but their dialogue is less cutesy than weird.
From Lily’s opening line to her role in the play’s sad, jarring ending 10 years later, suffice it to say that calling Lily neurotic is like calling Charles Manson disturbed. Lily says she suffers in agony under Eva’s smothering thumb; she’ll inherit a vast fortune on her 21st birthday; that the story behind her father’s death may not comport with what her mother wants others to believe. Or does it? Each character— save Eva’s maid Olivia, in a sublime, subliminal performance by Brenda Pressley—is and is not what they represent themselves to be. Nick is a correspondent for Time—or is he? The fruits of Eva’s investigation of him, in a brusque scene, suggests otherwise.Then again, what do we know of Eva? What do we believe when it comes to Eva’s reasons for preserving the blossoming union between her precious wallflower with a history of rebellion and this apparently well-bred star of the dance? In Act 2, Gil Harbison—handsome as Nick, but more cunning, courtesy of Austin Lysy—arrives.The result is that questions swirl once more around Nick, especially regarding the back-story he’d have Lily believe.
Greenberg’s title refers to the all-inclusive deals those Catskills hotels offered its guests, but in reality it’s a euphemism for the penchant of Americans to invent and reinvent ourselves, to keep a healthy, tender distance from the truth.
But here, too, 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:The revelation that Nick and Gil are also more than well-mannered, divine looking WASPs meandering through this Jewish jungle is detectible a mile away. 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. As Lily, she shoulders a lightning-rod quality that keeps your eyes on her throughout the night, but the play requires an undercurrent of Jewishness that one would naturally expect of Eva’s child, and Rabe’s voice, for one thing, is debutante-atthe-club, not Deborah-at-the-shul. And she looks quite beautiful, but more like someone liable to be Nick’s sister, not a Semitic goddess with a family from hell.
> The American Plan
Through Mar. 15. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. (betw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.), 212-239-6200; times vary, $56.50-$96.50.
Nick Campion and Lily Rabe inManhattan Theatre Club’s revival of The American Plan.