THE AMERICAN PLAN
St James Theatre, London, Tuesday 30th July, 2013
Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Richard Greenberg’s play is enjoying its transfer to the capital – or rather, I should say, the audiences are enjoying it. This is a cracking production and, try as I might, I cannot find fault with it. It’s well on course to being my favourite play of the year – quite the accolade, I’m sure you’ll agree!
The plot concerns a mother and daughter who, along with their maid, live across the lake from a resort in the Catskills (It is from this resort that the play takes its title: an ‘American plan’ means the same as ‘full board’ in English money). They are joined by a young man with whom the daughter is smitten. Mother has reservations: daughter’s mental stability has led to problems in the past. Add to this the fact that the young man is not entirely what he pretends, and the scene is set for an engaging drama, along the lines of a Tennessee Williams, albeit transplanted to a more northerly location and handled with a lighter touch.
Diana Quick rules the roost as the mother, Eva, an elegant Jewish momma with a sharp Germanic accent and sharper acuity. She operates almost entirely in the realm of subtext and invites other characters to do the same. It’s a very arch, very funny performance and Quick is matched by the rest of this splendid ensemble. Emily Taaffe is electrifying as Eva’s daughter Lili – at first, the archetypal bored teen, seeking distraction in her imagination but we soon realise there is something else at work here. Lili’s tall tales lead to problems for handsome Nicky’s relationship with a girl from the resort, and soon he and Lili are ‘involved’. Luke Allen-Gale is just about perfect as the charismatic and opportunistic Nicky, exuding charm and apparent decency, tackling the tidal changes of Nicky’s fortunes and emotions without losing our goodwill – in fact, such is the quality of every performer, we go along with everything the characters resort to. As maid Olivia, Dona Croll is quietly long-suffering in a good-humoured way, dignified and with an understated sardonicism that lifts the characterisation out of the stereotype. Her relationship with Lili has a touch of the Nurse with Juliet; the script has more than a few literary or classical allusions, amid all the coercions and negotiations.
In the second half, a fifth character arrives in the form of Gil (Mark Edel-Hunt); of course Gil is not what he appears and his arrival sets the plot alight and forces Eva to bring all her subtextual skills and manipulations to the fore as she manages the new situation. The intelligence of the writing means the audience is right there with her, reading between the lines and revelling in the delicious irony.
Director David Grindley’s assured handling of the material allows the actors to be subtle, tickling us with feathers rather than sledgehammers of melodrama. Suitably, Jonathan Fensom’s set and costume designs are also subdued, hinting at place and period in an subtly emblematic manner.
All in all, The American Plan is a feast, an all-you-can-eat theatrical buffet, more than satisfying and very, very tasty.