It’s been a full generation since Richard Greenberg wrote “The American Plan,” and in that time the playwright has become better known and his work has taken on minor masterpiece status. It has been a rough journey, mainly because playwright Greenberg relies not so much on plot as characterizations for his forte –– and theater-goers, as we know, want musicals, and if lacking that, at least plays with a heavy action thrust.
And “The American Plan,” which closes a substantial season at the Princeton Summer Theater, is all about character.
The setting is a summer place in the Catskills, on a private lake, sharing the land with a large resort facility. Three women spend summers there, in the private home: the Adlers, mother and daughter. And Olivia Shaw, the housekeeper who shares confidences, especially with Momma.
It is obvious from the beginning that neither mother or daughter really belong there. They are of German-Jewish stock and thus have very little in common with the clientele of the resort (mainly from the Bronx. In fact, Momma says: “It is good to stay in touch with the lower life forms.” And so, when a young man shows up one afternoon, very much a WASP, and daughter Lili pays close attention, even in her flighty manner, Momma sees an opening.
But playwright Greenberg isn’t done, and his play (in about two hours and 10 minutes) has many more complications and contradictions. The acting level at Princeton Summer Theater has been superb all season, and here the cast of five is brilliant. We have traveled this summer from Switzerland (“A Little Night Music”) to London (“Gaslight”). And to Paris (“Boeing, Boeing”). And now to New York and the Catskills, and we have come to admire these fine actors: Sarah Paton plays the daughter with an extraordinary blend of inner grace and outer madness. Maeve Brady plays her mother with a delicious sense of Teutonic power. Miyuki Miyagi plays the housekeeper with just a hint of knowing the family secrets.
Andrew Massey plays the visiting WASP with both openness and the feeling that he has something to hide. And Evan Thompson shows up for the second act as a sort of spoiler. Daniel Rattner has directed with a remarkable ability to allow his actors to take their needed time.
And, as if to show that no touch is to small, you will find that director Rattner and lighting designer Alex Mannix have collaborated to end many of the scenes with “frozen lighting pauses” –– tiny moments of reflection that permit the audience just a moment to catch its breath as the next scene rushes to its start. It is almost a film technique –– very exciting, very powerful, and rarely seen. Incidentally Mannix, having just graduated, is on her way to her first job –– at Arena Stage, in Washington.
“The American Plan,” Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton Unviersity. Thursday through Sunday, August 9 through 12. $25. www.princetonsummertheater.org or 609-258-7062.