Dollars, discord and broken dreams

By Scott Harrah

This drama by Richard Greenberg, the Tony-winning playwright of “Take Me Out,” and the Tony-winning director David Grindley (“Journey’s End”) is a disappointment on so many levels. What starts out as a simple, touching story about a German-Jewish immigrant mother, Eva Adler (the always marvelous Mercedes Ruehl), and her slightly neurotic daughter, Lily (Lili Rabe), spending a summer in the Catskills circa 1960 ends up being a convoluted mess, with an awkward narrative that’s unfocused and unsatisfying for audiences.

It’s shocking that a playwright of the caliber of Richard Greenberg and a usually razor-sharp director like David Grindley would mount such a rambling story. “The American Plan” certainly has a great theatrical pedigree and a fine cast of veterans, but its amateurish storyline seems more like the work of a college playwriting student that’s been produced for an Equity Showcase—not the Broadway stage.

Act one starts out like a delicate Tennessee Williams-style story of young Lily, a girl about to turn 21 who’s trying to escape the demands of her overbearing, wealthy mother and their quick-witted African-American servant, Olivia Shaw (Brenda Pressley). Lily meets handsome Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion) on the dock of a Catskills lake near her family’s summer home and immediately starts pouring on her coquettish charms to win him over. Lily claims she’s an heiress and about to inherit a substantial trust fund on her 21st birthday. Nick is supposedly already seeing another young woman at the resort on the other side of the lake, but Lily uses her feminine wiles (and spreads a vicious lie about Nick’s soon-to-be fiancée) to break them up so she can have him to herself.

As Eva Adler, derisively referred to by people in the Catskills resort as “The Czarina,” Mercedes Ruehl gives an incandescent portrayal of an intelligent, sharp-tongued Jewish mother who utters Yiddish bon mots with aplomb and initially seems pleased with her daughter’s new love. Eva, however, is a calculating creature, and eventually realizes that Nick is really after the Adler family fortune.

The story takes an implausible turn when charming hotel staffer Gil Harbison (Austin Lysy) arrives out of nowhere and reveals he has been searching for years for the mysterious Nick, resulting in a senseless plot twist that seems like it was thrown in for mere shock value. Nearly everyone in the story, it’s soon revealed, has a dark secret and no one is anything like who they at first appear to be, but by act two, the play just descends into preposterous melodrama.

The end of the second act, set in 1970, attempts to wrap up the events of the fateful summer a decade earlier, but it makes little sense like most of the story. “The American Plan” supposedly makes statements about broken dreams, subterfuge and family discord, but the plot and its characters are haphazardly developed, and playwright Richard Greenberg’s narrative goes in far too many misguided directions. David Grindley does a good job of getting decent performances out of the cast—most notably Lily Rabe as the emotionally unstable Lili—but he’s unable to keep this ill-conceived drama from collapsing through its many thematic holes.