Richard Greenberg, the gifted playwright Henry James only dreamed of becoming, explores Jamesian themes of fortune management and self-reconstruction in his 1990 high comedy “The American Plan,” making its belated but most welcome West Coast debut at the Old Globe in a production marked by touches of elegance not unworthy of the master himself.
While James sent Americans abroad to document their clash with Old World culture, Greenberg wittily, if improbably, plops aristocratic German Jewish widow Eva Adler (Sandra Shipley) into the raucous Catskills of the 1960s, the locale and period of “Dirty Dancing.” From her overgrown garden she offers tea and lack of sympathy, casting a baleful eye at the resort across the lake and its not-Our-Crowd consumers of the titular three square meals a day. “It is good to stay in touch with the lower life forms,” she blandly observes.
A different American plan is in progress on the Adler grounds, where Eva’s truculent, strangely dissociated daughter Lili (Kate Arrington) beholds golden boy Nick (Patrick Zeller) literally rising from the lake like Excalibur. Promptly smitten with the aspiring architect she calls “Nicky Tabula-Rasa” (“I want you to have been spared everything,” she avers), she begins manipulating his disengagement from the hotel guests and an engagement to her.
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Though Eva doubts his bona fides, this Lochinvar is so blithely sure of his powers as to announce, “I cause happiness; that’s what I do.” The stage is set for a less melodramatic but equally melancholy variation on “Washington Square” (better known theatrically as “The Heiress”), in which a damaged young girl both blossoms and wilts in the unfamiliar role of beloved. “Don’t lose respect for me so soon,” Lili pleads, as Eva and Nick wrestle in genteel but deadly serious fashion to sort out her future.
Since no one is precisely what he or she seems, this wrestling match proves fascinating to witness. Even when his twists aren’t motivated or credible, Greenberg dispenses enough crisp bon mots and dollops of psychological truth to keep an audience delighted. (A visitor apologizes to Eva’s African-American companion Olivia — a droll Sharon Hope — if an irreverent remark has offended her: “I just thought you might be religious.” “People think that,” she murmurs.)
The playing is impeccable, Shipley’s command of Eva’s iron will and deviousness anchoring the events even when Greenberg allows the character to thin out in act two. The luminous Arrington effortlessly shifts gears from lucidity to terror, as befits a mind described as “a sort of masked ball; you never know with whom you are dancing.”
Zeller offsets his McDreamy aura with the faintest hint of incompleteness to which the headstrong Lili would be heedless, and Michael Kirby scores as another WASPy interloper with a different agenda.
Production’s pacing is assured, though helmer Kim Rubinstein hasn’t yet mastered the dynamics of arena-stage blocking, periodically keeping actors too close and closed-off for too long. There’s no carping at the environment she’s overseen, however, with Chris Rynne’s lights investing the photographic realism of Wilson Chin’s weed-infested garden (complete with symbolic dilapidated rowboat) with the magic of balmy summer days and starry nights.
In a superbly conceived coda, set 10 years on in Eva’s Manhattan mansion, setting and mood shift abruptly as Greenberg contrasts the anger and energy of an antiwar street rally with the spiritual emptiness of the inhabitants above.