The American Plan: Look to the Lilies
by Michael Dale - January 28, 2009
Whether the title of Richard Greenberg's bitterly comic 1990 drama brings to mind a hotel package with all meals included or a corporate union-busting practice, it can be argued that both interpretations refer to methods of maximizing gain while minimizing responsibility. And while both definitions play supporting roles in The American Plan, a third variation on the theme - marry well, be an excellent spouse and secretly carry on with your less-than-affluent lover - takes center stage.
It's 1960 (nitpicky complaint: Richard Rodgers' 1962 hit "The Sweetest Sounds" is one of the jazz instrumentals heard during scene changes) and Eva Adler (Mercedes Ruehl), a wealthy Jewish widow who just barely made it out of Hitler's Germany, is spending another summer in the Catskills with her daughter, Lili (Lily Rabe). Sarcastically nicknamed The Czarina and The Duchess by their resorting neighbors, Eva is a domineering snob who prefers to remain isolated; a point nicely reinforced by Jonathan Fensom's set; a large lakeside dock that sticks out of the mostly bare stage like a remote island and a curtain backdrop depicting a thickly wooded forest.
Lili, a Sarah Lawrence drop-out, is one of those fiercely intellectual literary types with a history of mental illness and a self-image inspired by distressed fairy tale princesses. So when the perfectly charming Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion) makes a frog-like emergence from the lake onto their dock, it doesn't take long for her to refer to him as her prince and plant a big kiss on his mouth just to insure the transformation.
Their quick courtship has Nick trying to impress Lili with lies about his employment and parentage and her trying to shock him with lies about the details of her father's death, but one of Nick's lies of omission involves a fellow named Gil (Austin Lysy). I'll leave it to the playwright to explain the nature of his involvement. And while Eva is anxious to see Lili married, her daughter's happiness must come on her own terms.
While Greenberg supplies two showcasing roles in Lili and Eva, and there is certainly enough cleverness to provide a reasonably steady stream of laughter, the pieces of The American Plan rarely combine into something that would propel interest into the next scene. If director David Grindley's gracefully natural production doesn't hide the play's shortcomings, it certainly highlights its assets. Mercedes Ruehl adds another memorable portrayal to her Broadway resume, making Eva a cynical, old-world survivor who handles personal relationships with big business ruthlessness. Her thick accent and dry delivery, though greatly amusing, always lands on the proper side of realism. Lily Rabe matches her with an emotionally fragile Lili who skillfully uses her erudite intelligence as a weapon, despite being a sappy romantic at heart.
Campion gives Nick the proper clean-cut dash and Lysy registers nicely as the more enterprising Gil. Brenda Pressley adds much to her small role as the Adler family maid, Olivia; making her the sort of woman who regards her employers with a detached indifference even as they're thinking of her as one of the family. And without the fine work of Grindley and company, there be the danger of audiences regarding The American Plan with detached indifference, too.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Kieran Campion and Lily Rabe; Bottom: Mercedes Ruehl