The American Plan

The UK premiere production of Richard Greenberg’s award-winning play comes to the St James Theatre with a cast including Diana Quick

The cast of The American Plan
The cast of The American Plan

“Happiness exists, but only for other people,” is the melancholic conclusion to Richard Greenberg’s plangent, nostalgic summer season folly at the St James, another welcome import from the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio season of American plays.

And like Michael Weller’s coruscating Fifty Words at the Arcola, this is a valuable retrieval of a piece that nearly slipped under the wire. Dating from 1990, director David Grindley‘s first revival in New York four years ago starred Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe as the wealthy German Jewish refugee, Eva Adler, and her spirited daughter, Lili.

Those roles are taken here by a refulgent Diana Quick, artfully transforming herself into a matriarchal galleon in full sail, with a dangerous twinkle and a “don’t mess with me” attitude; and by Emily Taaffe, a recent RSC Miranda and Viola, who dabbles in wicked rumours such as that her father, who might have been poisoned slowly with cyanide, invented the reversible condom.

We’re poised significantly at the very start of the 1960s in the Catskills, a holiday resort (“the American plan” is the all-in, eat-all-you-can bed and board option) we know best as the training ground of great Jewish post-war comedians like Danny Kaye, Milton Berle and Jackie Mason; but every summer, mothers like Eva from uptown Manhattan hoped to find “a sweet boy from across the lake” for their daughters.

Just such a suitable boy, Luke Allen-Gale’s Nick, a Time magazine writer who hopes to become an architect, rises from the sea onto the hotel jetty in the first scene. Trouble is, he already has a girlfriend (whom we never see) and – it emerges in a second act, somewhat tortuous, development – a college chum, Gil (Mark Edel-Hunt), who tracks him down hoping to renew their sexual intimacy.

“It’s time to put away childish things,” protests Nick, somewhat archly, and there’s a pervasive sense in the play of the idyll of innocence and summer vacations fading with the onset of a new decade, just as Eva, with her talk of fantastic gastronomic blow-outs and declarations that you simply can’t have a demi-tasse if the family spoons are in a basement in Cologne, looks increasingly like an eccentric relic.

Old? “I saw Methuselah in his pram,” says Eva, who’s accompanied by a black companion-cum-carer, Donna Croll’s watchful, sympathetic Olivia; this familial joint bulwark squeezes Lili from one side while she kicks against the other, telling her unseen “nymphomaniac” rival that Nick has the clap.

But times are changing, perhaps not quickly enough for Lili, and there’s a heart-stopping coda to the play ten years on, in 1970. The parallels with Henry James and Tennessee Williams have been well noted; Taaffe’s Lili is the spikey, damaged princess in the fairy tale, and Jonathan Fensom’s design of a shimmering summer landscape behind the jetty is the perfect setting.