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THE AMERICAN PLAN – St James Theatre, London.

american planA hot, sluggish summer’s day is the perfect preparation for this sweltering trip to the Catskills, a mountainous retreat north of New York City where, in Richard Greenberg’s rendering, hazy contentment masks desperately stifled desires. The livin’ is easy, the loving anything but – “Happiness exists, but only for other people,” sighs the play’s self-styled tragic heroine, who dismisses a suitor’s ambitions with the bitterly curt “Everyone has pipe dreams.” The fashionable abundance of this early 1960s realm of leisure might appear a dream realised, but Greenberg skilfully exposes the suffocation of its enforced collective values.

The title of The American Plan refers to an all-in rate at the resort’s hotels, meaning guests paid a set amount for accommodation and food and could then consume as much as they liked. Such plenty was in stark contrast to recent wartime deprivation, yet it came with certain strictures, namely acceptance of an elite group’s social mores. Any deviation from this carefully maintained status quo might spell disaster.

Greenberg’s deviants are separated not just by behaviour, but by geography. Imperious German-Jewish emigrée Eva deliberately isolates herself and her family – troubled daughter Lili and Sphinx-like African-American companion Olivia – by residing on the other side of the lake from the mass of holidaymakers. Visitors to their enclave comment appreciatively on the contrast to the action “over there”, yet it is an inescapable fact that the people “over there” are the ones with power in this society. You can enjoy a respite from them, but you cannot opt out indefinitely.

This searing 1990 play seems similarly bound by others, owing a great debt to the operatic anguish of Tennessee Williams, the artful social commentary of Henry James and the Chekhovian trope of suspended lives in a season of change, as well as nods to F. Scott Fitzgerald and even Dirty Dancing. However, such influences actually inform a piece that centres on constructing identity. Greenberg admits this early work skips between genres, not quite settling in high comedy, melodrama or fairy tale, yet its characters struggle to make the same decision.

This is most apparent in brittle fantasist Lili, whose half-truths vary from caustically coquettish to venomously destructive. Her mirror is her mother Eva, a marvellous take on the snobbish Old World matriarch, who uses her scars as bait in her Machiavellian campaign of self-protection. It gradually transpires that this pair of warring unreliable narrators may be playing the same game, but Eva is the grand master.

Caught between them is convivial WASP Nick, who makes the preppy version of a Mr Darcy entrance, but Lili’s wistful assessment that he “looks as if nothing ever happened to him” is premature, though typical of a narrow world view in which she is the innocent princess guarded by a dragon. The question of who is truly a victim is complicated further by the late arrival of Gatsby-esque charmer Gil, an apparent embodiment of the affluent norm whose illicit passion threatens to upset everyone’s plans.

Greenberg has a talent for beautifully layered revelations, each one more captivating than the last, but that does mean some of the later, more emotionally involving drama gets short shrift. His cool ambivalence towards his characters, who veer towards unlikeable in their raw selfishness, also risks alienation, particularly in the more contrived passages. However, the rich script teems with pensive wisdom and biting witticisms, and David Grindley’s production succeeds most when he balances the soufflé-light surface with the churning currents beneath; the occasional mannered or overwrought scene jars in this intimate venue.

american planDiana Quick savours every nuance of Eva’s conflicting guises, screamingly funny in her horror of vulgarity, quietly devastating when spikes of pain puncture her majestic manipulation. Her pedantically eccentric delivery lends curious shades of ambiguity to lines such as her observation that novice swimmer Lili “never stays in the shallow part”. In contrast, Emily Taaffe captures Lili’s wild neuroses, but struggles to convey subtler elements, such as her brooding sexuality and complex depressive tendencies.

Luke Allen-Gale shows enormous promise as the fragmenting chancer, while an underused Mark Edel-Hunt brings much-needed vulnerability by demonstrating the consequences of deceptive, shrewdly transactional relationships. Dona Croll’s Olivia offers a fascinating counterpart to this band of storytellers; “I’d end up lonelier for the information I’d given away,” she argues when called upon for revelation, and, more poignantly given her outsider status, “It is not my job to be known.”

Outsider she may be, but her plan shows the clearest understanding of what reluctant immigrant Eva calls “an intricately unhappy life lived out in compensatory splendour”. The American Dream of this era offers everyone the chance to build a prosperous life, to create the person you want to be, but in return, your job is to maintain the accepted façade whatever the personal cost. That such liberation can also be a crippling form of repression makes this a fascinating, constantly surprising piece.

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Reviewed 09/07/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

2nd July – 10th August 2013
St James Theatre, London, SW1.

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