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Theatre Review (San Diego): The American Plan by Richard Greenberg

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The American Plan is Richard Greenberg’s take on Henry James’s novel Washington Square combined with elements from an adaptation (movie and play) of the James novel The Heiress. Someone quoted to me a statement about Richard Greenberg: “If Henry James could have been a successful playwright he would have been Richard Greenberg.” Both are fascinated with the mysterious and sometimes ugly truths that lie underneath the surface of people’s lives.

The American Plan is set in the Catskill Mountains during their heyday as a summer resort area in the 1960s. An elegant and imperious mother – a German-Jewish refugee – comes every summer with her eccentric and troubled daughter to find peace and quiet. Their peace is disturbed by the arrival (via an amazing entrance from under a pool of water) of a handsome young man, who becomes the daughter‘s suitor. At first glance the daughter seems a mild, funny eccentric (think Mary Louise Parker). So well played by Kate Arlington, she falls for the handsome stranger (Patrick Zeller), who in turn is smitten by her singular personality. At this point in the play we think we are seeing a pleasant romantic comedy.

The mother, played by the remarkable Sandra Shipley – who reminds one of a gorgeous but deadly snake – arrives on the scene with her maid, Sharon Hope, in tow. The mother (Eva as in Evil) proceeds to try to poison the young man’s affection for the daughter and prove he is a gold-digger.

Next on the scene is another young man (Michael Kirby) who at first glance seems to be just another vacationer. It is soon revealed he is the ex-lover of the suitor. When the mother discovers their secret she convinces the new intruder to try to get back together with his ex. Eventually the two do run off, leaving the daughter waiting, suitcase in hand, for her fiancé to whisk her away.

The scene shifts to ten years later when the fiancé comes back saying he made a terrible mistake. But the daughter, no longer young and fresh, has settled into a reclusive lifestyle worthy of a James heiress.

What is interesting here are all the twists Greenberg makes on the James story, including the setting, the time period, the homosexuality, and a seemingly evil mother (not a father as in the James novel). We discover that all these characters have secrets. The daughter is on medication, having been hospitalized for mental problems, and she falls in love every summer only to be rescued by her mother. As noted, the two suitors are gay ex-lovers. The mother turns out to be less a monster than a protective parent with a keen sense of what makes people tick; as an ex-German Jew, she knows how bad human nature can be. The final scene, too, is different than in the James novel. The daughter admits she knew about her fiancé's bisexual nature and would have been willing to share him, only now, life has passed them both by and they are left staring into space.

The performances are first-rate, and director Kim Rubinstein mines as much mystery as she can from the events in the play. The set, by Wilson Chin, is evocative of the Catskills; the lighting by Chris Rynne is suitably romantic; and the costumes are well designed (they hide the fact that Kate Arlington is five months pregnant, for one thing). Go see this one; it's at the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Theatre through March 30.

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