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A CurtainUp Review
The American Plan
By Elyse Sommer
The best way to begin this review is with the mission statement of Outcast Productions under whose auspices, this short re-run of Richard Greenberg's 1990 play is being performed at the Houseman's tiny basement space:
Stories of people who have fallen through the cracks of our society's rigid definition for what is and isn't acceptable are what Outcast Production intends to stage. It is these stories we believe, that give the theater a context universal to all of us, and a means to laugh and feel our way through the experiences that define our stride toward deeper unity and greater understanding.
The American Plan, is an excellent choice to give dramatic voice to this mission. Set in the deceptive idyll of a Catskill retreat, it unravels the stories of five people who are living within the mass identity of America in 1960, but very much on the outside looking in.
The title refers to both the inside and outside aspects of these lives. It refers specifically to the 3-meals a day American Plan offered by the hotel we never see but which nevertheless plays a key role in the lives of the three women living in a private house (also never seen), across the lake. On a subtler level it refers to the world they all inhabit occasionally— The men as registered guests of the hotel; Eva Adler (Catherine Wolf) and Lili Adler (Missy Hargraves) as occasional visitors.
The key story is that of Lili, an attractive leggy 20-year-old urchin, an heiress straining against the tight leash on which her dominating mother keeps her. As the playwright unravels the more troubling underpinnings of her if-it's-on-your-lung-it's-on-your-tongue frankness, we quickly realize that we've stumbled into a comedy that needs the prefix serio to define it—to wit, Lily's poignant conclusion that "happiness exists . . . but it's for other people." And as director Mark Roberts, adeptly steers Lily and the four other players through one increasingly revealing scene after another, we also realize that Lili is not the only character who's not who she at first seems to be.
The elegant and imperious German refugee mother known as "the Czarina" by the people in the hotel across the lake and the soft-spoken suitor (Daniel Vespa) who came to the hotel "for a change" are no more ordinary what-you-see-is-what-you get people than Lili. Even Olivia, (Kim Bey) the least revealed character, seems to have a past that has caused her to devote her life to the Adlers, as does the hearty and handsome Johnny-come-lately second WASP landing in the Adler's garden (Nick Gregory).
I won't spoil things with details about what happens during that summer of 1960 and the brief epilogue 10 years later. Suffice it to say that while this may not have the trendy beat of Greenberg's better-known Eastern Standard, it's definitely worth seeing, especially with a new play by Greenberg, Three Days of Rain, scheduled to open at the same Manhattan Theatre Club where this play also originated.
You may find traces of The Glass Menagerie and Last Night At Ballyhoo (see our review) which also focus on fragile daughters and determined mothers, but Missy Hargraves and Catherine Wolf very much put their own stamp on Lili and Eva. Ms. Hargraves Lili is charmingly perky and poignantly troubled and Ms. Wolf plays Eva with just the right touch of Teutonic elegance and shrewdness. The other actors also give the proper nuances to their parts, with Nick Gregory, coming on scene later than any of the others, making a particularly strong impression.
If the set design by Allistair Wandesforde-Smith is excessively spare, such is the nature of such low-budget production. The very affordable price of admission ($12) offsets the lack of theatrical bells and whistles. Within the framework of limited stage resources one can almost understand the ue of a cheap prop like the herbal cigarette Olivia lights up in one scene. The thing is, that this bit adds nothing to the play or the characterizations, and in fact serves only to distract and annoy those (like this reviewer) who feel cigarette smoking should be kept off stage except when absolutely indispensable.
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