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Lucy Komisar

"The American Plan"

"The American Plan."
Written by Richard Greenberg.
Directed by David Grindley.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street.
Opened Jan 22, 2009, Closes March 22, 2009.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Feb 11, 2009.

Mercedes Ruehl in "The American Plan". Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The mood is surreal in Richard Greenberg's fast-paced, sharply acted, quirky drama of love twisted into domination. The setting is naturalistic enough – a wood dock back-dropped by cedars at a summer home across the lake from a Catskills hotel. But the witchy, controlling Eva Adler (a biting Mercedes Ruehl), who presides over the scene, could blot out the sun as she does the life of her daughter and her chances with young men who deign to wander over from the hotel. Ruehl as Mother Eva makes Mama Rose ("Gypsy") look like a wimp.

Eva is a rich German Jew who escaped from Nazi Germany with her husband. The sense of dread hasn't left her. Her daughter Lily recalls, "She used to sing, 'The Nazis haven't found us, but my darling they're around us'." Is that the reason she won't let go of her daughter?

It's 1960, which could be an excuse for why Lily (the excellent, ephemeral Lily Rabe) can't break free. Women were just on the cusp of liberation. (The play was first produced in 1990.)

Lily, 20, is outwardly fragile and appears to have been psychologically manacled by mother. She is not however without resources. After all, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence, and her smarts come out in irony: she tells Nick Lockridge, a young man she meets, that she lives in the River Styx on Central Park West.

Kieran Campion and Lily Rabe in "The American Plan". Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But Lily, her soon boyfriend Nick (Kieran Campion), and Nick's friend Gil Harbison (Austin Lysy), all turn out to have deceitful and manipulative bones as

well. One thinks of a wily "La Ronde." Is Greenberg telling us that love is based on and debased by deception and manipulation?

Nick wants to marry rich; he's been having an affair across the lake with Mindy, whose wealthy parents are in tow. A Greenberg quip is that Mindy hangs on to him like a blue chip stock. It's not clear why Nick now chooses Lily. It's clear that Lily wants to marry to get out of Eva clutches. But Gil's arrival is Eva's deux ex machina, though the device seems a bit contrived.

A silent observer of the events is Olivia Shaw (Brenda Pressley), the black maid, who seems a companion rather than a servant. She serves a lot of tea but doesn't say much. Perhaps she protects herself by being unexpressive.

L-R : Lily Rabe, Brenda Pressley, Kieran Campion, and Mercedes Ruehl. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Greenberg is a master of the one-liner and, in this case, subtle jokes based on Jewish Catskills culture. Director David Grindley extracts the laughs, while keeping the character-defining moments intact. Eva, expressing superiority with a Germanic accent, dismisses the people at the hotel, who eat to excess on the all-you-can-eat American Plan and do everything else without taste.

Gil, a WASP like Nick, throws off a quip that suggests he is also slumming. He's come to the Catskills, because he's already been to the East End (read Hamptons), Nantucket, Fishers Island, and Martha's Vineyard.

Of course, he's not telling the truth any more than the others. So maybe the American Plan is not only about hotel food, it's about how people devour each other. All they can eat.

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