The simple, sturdy wood frame around Jonathan Fensom’s set for “The American Plan” looks like it might belong on a Norman Rockwell painting. But in Richard Greenberg’s quietly melancholy 1990 play, receiving a delicate revival on Broadway from the Manhattan Theater Club, that standardized perception of American life turns out to be an uncomfortable trap for all five characters. Regardless of the lengths to which they are willing to go to secure their happiness, these are lives cramped by denial, defeat, compromise, lies and fabrications — which is not to say this is a gloomy piece of theater.
Greenberg modeled his characters on the central triangle from Henry James’ “Washington Square” and its theatrical adaptation “The Heiress,” relocating the tragicomedy to the Catskills in summer 1960. Employing a subtlety and perspicacity — not to mention a conversational formality — that could fairly be described as Jamesian, a rich sprinkling of clever aphorisms and a tart social commentary that recalls Jane Austen, Greenberg brings feather-light brush strokes to what’s essentially a somber work.
If the play’s themes don’t crystallize as swiftly or satisfyingly as they should, it’s nonetheless an absorbing reflection on relationships carved out of disappointment and resignation in an era immediately before nonconformity became a more available option.
Within Fensom’s frame is a section of lakeside wharf that from various angles dominates all but the play’s final coda, providing a jumping-off point for emotionally jittery Lili Adler (Lily Rabe) as she attempts to bring about change in her life. She identifies a vehicle for that change in preppy hunk Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion), who takes her breath away when he emerges from the lake, the water glistening on his period-inappropriate six-pack.
Situated across from a popular hotel, Lily’s summer home is described at one point as her castle keep, with her haughty German-Jewish mother Eva (Mercedes Ruehl) serving as the moat and Eva’s sphinx-like maid-turned-companion Olivia (Brenda Pressley) as the sentry.
None of these circumspect characters is exactly as he or she appears, and all seem to have assembled a persona around codified roles, including Gil (Austin Lysy), the second charming, urbane young WASP to surface and linger on the Adlers’ wrong side of the lake. “Two of you in one summer,” marvels Eva, hinting that his arrival is no coincidence.
Much of the low-key tension in the characters’ interplay, teased out with a gentle but coaxing hand by director David Grindley, stems from their exertions to keep up a facade or to lock in the elements that will allow them to construct one.
The big guessing game centers around the m.o. of imperious, widowed Eva, known to the hotel revelers she disparages as “the Czarina.” Shadowed by her own past as a Holocaust refugee whose inventor husband withered at the hands of exploitative gentile businessmen, Eva’s every exchange comes cloaked in judgment and suspicion. Is she facilitating Lili’s escape plan or blocking it? Is she overprotective or merely controlling and destructive, unwilling to contemplate being left alone?
With Ruehl’s thick accent (she sounds like Uta Hagen in “Mrs. Klein”) and knowing delivery, her chewy performance removes much of the doubt from these questions — if ever there was any in Greenberg’s text. But the thesp’s dour flamboyance and natural authority make Eva a fascinating figure, her motives so shaped by the fatalism of history and experience that even at her most abrasive, she’s never entirely unsympathetic.
The center of the play, however, is Lili, given a marvelous, fragile complexity by Rabe, who is rapidly growing into one of the most compelling young actresses on the New York stage. A “pre-occupational” Sarah Lawrence dropout, Lili appears helpless one minute, then manipulative, playful and unnervingly direct the next, embroidering the truth to suit her needs. She’s mesmerizing as she toys with Nick, her mood continually clouding over, then brightening again, or as she moves warily around her mother, waiting for Eva’s machinations to derail her fairy tale.
“Inside her head is a sort of masked ball; you never know with whom you are dancing,” Eva explains of her daughter. “Lili is not charmingly eccentric. She is not your garden-variety neurotic.” True to that description and to the character’s Jamesian roots, Lili is a beguiling throwback to the exquisitely breakable porcelain heroines of 19th century literature, but she’s also flinty and calculating. Rabe embraces her shifting nuances with mercurial intelligence and sensitivity.
In the supporting roles, Pressley’s deadpan unflappability shows judicious glimpses of the resentment beneath her loyalty, while Campion and Lysy both embody the golden, albeit deceptive invulnerability of privilege.
Until things get complicated, Campion’s Nick seems to evolve according to Lili’s romanticized perception of him, as a prince. At one point he even makes the fanciful claim “I cause happiness; that’s what I do,” and he appears convinced it’s true. Nick’s an aspiring architect, and his lofty dream to build a whole city is irresistible to Lili given her yen for elaborate fictions.
Even if there’s something naggingly insubstantial about the minor-key play — partly due to its over-reliance on Eva as the means by which liberating plans subside into numbing reality — the acerbic wit of Greenberg’s dialogue and the frequent acuity of his psychological insights keep it engrossing.
After the shimmering glow of Mark McCullough’s lighting has faded in the final scene into the suffocating airlessness of the Adlers’ Upper West Side New York apartment, Eva’s words from the close of the first act about “an intricately unhappy life… lived out in compensatory splendor” continue to resonate.