The American Plan

National Jewish Theater

By Adam Langer

Like the couple at the center of his surprisingly moving drama The American Plan, Richard Greenberg seems a person born out of his time. With his quick wit and poetic turns of phrase, he might well have been the toast of the theater scene in the 40s or 50s, a sort of latter-day Philip Barry. But despite great promise and flashes of verbal brilliance–especially in his deft, hilarious Ask Me Again, shown on PBS about seven years back–he’s often flailed around, aiming to please rather than developing his strengths.

Eastern Standard, the self-consciously politically correct comedy for which he’s best known, seems in retrospect less a play than a glib grant proposal, ticking off hot-button issues like homelessness, AIDS, and white-collar crime in its exploration of the relationships of two couples–one gay, one straight–and the lost souls they encounter. The critically lauded The Maderati, about the indiscreet charmlessness of the New York bourgeoisie, suffers from a forced lunacy that’s flaccidly imitative of S.J. Perlman. Even at his weakest, however, Greenberg displays more ingenuity and depth than such roundly hailed playwrights as John Patrick Shanley, yet outside of New York he’s still relatively unknown. His recent plays Night and Her Stars, The Extra Man, and Jenny Keeps Talking have won their share of accolades from New York critics yet still haven’t found an audience below 45th Street or west of Central Park West.

Though Greenberg’s 1992 The American Plan, like much of the rest of his oeuvre, falls victim to formulaic plotting and verbose, show-offy dialogue, in many ways it realizes the promise of his other plays. Rather than load up his plot with the socially relevant references that bogged down Eastern Standard, Greenberg slyly alludes to such pet issues as anti-Semitism and middle-American homophobia. The play depicts the ill-fated 1959 romance between Lili Adler, the wildly intelligent and troubled young daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and the Waspy Nick Lockridge, whose bourgeois pretensions, debonair seductiveness, Brooks Brothers wardrobe, and lofty dream of becoming an architect conceal decidedly humbler origins and an ambivalent sexual orientation. Though at first this play seems another of Greenberg’s patented giddy, everything’s-coming-up-roses romances between two verbal Olympians, the happy ending is soon thwarted by Lili’s widowed mother Eva; her miserable past has turned her into a schemer who does everything in her power to prevent her daughter from leaving her. And then there’s Gil Harbison, Nick’s old lover who’s come back to collect on the affection he feels Nick owes him.

The intelligently plotted intrigues between Lili, Gil, Nick, and Eva are watched over by the wise and witty Olivia, the Adlers’ cook and companion.

The year 1959 is well chosen, for it inverts our own period. A precipice overlooking the 60s, it’s a time symbolically removed from the social changes that would follow and render many of Lili and Nick’s troubles irrelevant. At the same time the play suggests how far our present society has moved from the idealistic promises of 30-some years ago and toward the same sort of intolerance that made happiness impossible for Greenberg’s two heroes. The play’s 1969 denouement finds the delicate Lili in a bleak “Miltonic” co-op, far removed from any connection with the world, and Nick an unfulfilled schoolteacher in Cincinnati, well-known now for its wonderfully progressive, tolerant attitudes toward citizens and artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. Setting the play in 1959 also allows Greenberg to indulge his estimable gift for wordplay, which often makes this play seem a throwback to the early days of Broadway.

Since this is a Greenberg play, it’s littered with well-chosen literary references and filled with savvy, fast-paced dialogue and smart one-liners. Lili makes snappy allusions to T.S. Eliot and Ibsen, and her penchant for inventing witty lies seems lifted out of Saki’s short story “The Open Window” (“Romance at short notice was her specialty”). Lili’s mother is the Jewish version of Dickens’s Miss Havisham: she’s kept her Estella–Lili–away from men by making her neurotic, not standoffish. Nick seems a cross between Jay Gatsby and a rakish pretender to wealth out of a Jane Austen novel. And his on-again, off-again relationship with the clever Harbison suggests what might have been if, in The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant could have gotten it on with Jimmy Stewart instead of Katharine Hepburn.

The exception to Greenberg’s well-drawn characters is Olivia, a rather sketchily written critique of stereotypes of black domestics that nevertheless falls victim to stereotyping. Otherwise Greenberg’s characters and dialogue are consistently involving, even when we know perfectly well where the conflicts are going to lead. The only moments that ring false are some of the lines that seem stolen from 40s movies. When young Nick says loftily that one day he hopes to “build a whole city,” he invites the cringing recollection of George Bailey’s treacly lines, which must have seemed trite when Frank Capra filmed them 50 years ago. And someone somewhere should have informed Greenberg that it’s not very original for Lili to demonstrate her affection for Nick by saying, “I love you. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m not crazy.”

Jeff Ginsberg’s direction of National Jewish Theater’s production, a Chicago premiere, is a bit too stagy and emotive to be credible in the opening scene, but the rest of The American Plan is a solid, entertaining evening of theater. As Nick and Lili, the smooth and sympathetic Tom Daugherty and Jackie Katzman (who’s adept at conveying both profound emotional anxiety and intellectual self-assurance) are particularly strong. Chet Grissom’s Harbison is sympathetic and charming in a delightfully oily way. Roslyn Alexander as Eva seems miscast, however. Decked out in purportedly regal outfits that make her look a bit like Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, she speaks her lines in a wavering accent that sounds vaguely Transylvanian, and she’s not convincing when she tries to embody Eva’s connivance. The extraordinarily talented Jacqueline Williams is wasted in the role of Olivia, which gives her little more to do than make sage faces and remarks. Still, this is a rare opportunity to check out the work of one of this country’s most talented young playwrights.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.