The American Plan, St James Theatre, London – review

The American Plan refers to the lavish full-board option at a hotel in the Catskills, described in belt-loosening detail by one of the characters in Richard Greenberg’s 1990 play. But it also refers to a way of life that might promise much but offers little real succour to those who don’t fit in. Greenberg’s delicate, mesmerising drama is set in the early 1960s and takes place, symbolically, on the other side of the lake from the hotel.

Here, on a wooden jetty, handsome young hotel guest Nick takes refuge from the incessant eating and socialising and meets Lili, a pretty, but strangely wilful girl. Is she, as she says, held virtual prisoner by her overbearing and scheming mother or is she herself a manipulative, emotionally unstable fantasist? Soon Nick is caught in an intricate web of claims and counter-claims from mother and daughter. And then it turns out that he too has been somewhat economical with the truth.

The play is deliberately infused with influences – Henry James, Tennessee Williams and The Great Gatsby among them. But it has its own style, as Greenberg combines shrewd and waspish humour with intrigue, mystery and a sad sense of longing. Just as Nick gets drawn into the curious lives of Lili and her mother, so we are intrigued by this enigmatic trio of characters and the life burdens that drive their strange behaviour. Lili’s mother is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, her punctilious snobbishness and protective, possessive control of her daughter both born of her experience. Nick is driven by family misfortune and shame.

The piece is at its best and most eloquent in the first half, when it keeps you guessing about characters’ motives and integrity. It loses some of its power once Greenberg introduces another emotional axis and the play becomes too tidy and contrived an account of outsiders. But Greenberg creates some tremendous characters and in David Grindley’s subtle production (first seen at Theatre Royal Bath in March), these are beautifully handled by the cast. Luke Allen-Gale and Emily Taaffe are both charismatic as Nick and Lili. Diana Quick makes an outrageous and funny gorgon as the domineering Jewish mama, and reveals a more vulnerable side in conversation with her black companion (a wonderfully dry and wise Dona Croll). Despite its flaws, the play sensitively depicts a handful of characters for whom the liberalising Sixties are going to arrive just too late.

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