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Theater Review:

"THE AMERICAN PLAN," Roadworks Productions at The Viaduct

BY LUCIA MAURO

Richard Greenberg’s unconventional 1994 drama, "The American Plan," hints at the deeply rooted pains and hypocrisies of individuals at war with their consciences. But his story is so muddled and superficially traipsed over that the play unintentionally mirrors the contrived sense of invention its characters impose upon their swooningly tormented selves.

Set on the summer-home grounds of German-Jewish matriarch Eva Adler and her flighty young daughter Lili in the Catskills across from a titular all-inclusive resort, "The American Plan" attempts to topple the American homogenization touted during the Eisenhower era. Yet the playwright appears to be more in love with capitalizing on the quirkiness of his characters than carefully dissecting their emotional complexity or their place in a divided society.

A committed cast -- directed with a stirring musical fluidity by Kim Rubinstein in Roadworks Productions’ lushly designed staging at The Viaduct -- makes the play’s more precious moments bearable. But they cannot hide the off-kilter, ill-defined nature of Greenberg’s script. Various ideas float around but never get grounded in urgent purpose.

The playwright’s goal of unpeeling the innocent veneer of post-World War II America drives the play – both too obviously and not enough, or not in the right places. An unraveling of sorts happens from the get-go as the spontaneous Lili aggressively pursues Nick Lockeridge, a WASPish gold digger with a tragic past, who happens upon their pier. Lili exhibits a charmingly loopy way of dashing the handsome Nick’s too-sweetly accommodating ways – from telling him there are water moccasins in the lake to deadpanning that she lives in the River Styx – at the same time she desperately throws herself at him.

An energetic, lonely girl held captive by her damaged and domineering mother, Lili exists in an isolated realm of fantasy tinged with a confrontational, anti-social charm. Yet her dark, spontaneous lies quickly disintegrate into a wild instability. Perhaps Lili really is a "garden-variety neurotic" (one of Greenberg’s favorite phrases).

On the other hand, Eva -- while manipulative and bitter -- remains an ambiguous presence. Is she protecting her daughter or leading her into the abyss of a diabolical, self-interested scheme? Does she seek revenge or exhibit a twisted superiority when she discovers Nick’s secret involving another indecipherable young man named Gil Harbison? Are we meant to view the brutal injustices she suffered in Nazi Germany and the less obvious ones in the United States as the forces that drove her to such a preservation-at-all-costs mentality? And, overall, what does she have to gain from her destructive machinations?

Unfortunately, Greenberg does not artfully layer these daunting textures. Instead he flattens out Eva in a disturbingly cartoonish way. Lili, too, ultimately verges on the ridiculous. Is she really mentally disturbed? Did her mother make her that way? Is she suffocated by her environment or just not willful enough to fight for a lifestyle of her own choosing?

Then the playwright clumsily incorporates the Adlers’ African-American maid, Olivia Shaw, into the increasingly ambiguous action. While Olivia’s motivations are intentionally vague (saint-like loyalty or lack of choice) to represent the identity-erasing limbo of African Americans at that time, she is not compellingly explored and remains as flat as Eva. Her character faintly raises questions about ongoing cycles of oppression, but she’s simply not fleshed out enough to spark new perspectives on racism.

At the heart of "The American Plan" is Lili’s uncontrollable desire to marry Nick, who – after what later becomes something of a shocking discovery – falls into Eva’s stultifying trap. His actions provoke quite a melodramatic (and not believable) ending – very close to a Gothic novel. Is "The American Plan" just an elaborate way of showing, albeit in the extreme, how all daughters become their mothers?

The second half of the play is especially problematic as it leaps from one extreme to the other – never taking the time to create a suggestive flow of action or ideas. When Lili laments, "Happiness exists, but it’s for other people," the message is not so much that certain people are denied fulfilling lives but that Lili’s whiny self-pity and ineffectuality have trapped her in a stuffy old house "heavy with dark damask," while flower children revel freely in the streets of Manhattan.

Roadworks’ staging tries to inject some dangerously compelling dimensions into these cardboard characters. Lesley Bevan is particularly bold and embattled as Lili. Jason Vizza as the torn Nick and Scott Duff as the persistent Gil also deliver solid performances. Neda Spears lends dignity to the thankless role of Olivia but cannot overcome the fragmented way her character has been written. Celeste Lynch takes a disappointingly caricaturized approach (rife with squinting eyes and a very bad German accent) to Eva.

Most stunning is scenic designer Geoffrey M. Curley’s highly natural and sensory set. The action takes place in the center of the hangar-like Viaduct space atop a hill with moist grass so real, you can smell it. It is framed by a pier and a portion of a stone-filled lake. Joel Moritz’s summer-night lighting lends a mystical edge to the production; and Rachel Healey’s crisp vintage costumes (especially Eva’s dresses) mirror the strictures of the time.

Most of all, the hill gives the characters a Sisyphus-like burden in which they are engaged in a futile battle of repetitive disappointment. The design team has achieved visually what Greenberg struggles to get across in his well-intentioned but convoluted script.•

Roadworks Productions’ staging of "The American Plan" runs through June 29 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $23-$27. Call 312-943-5056 or log onto www.Roadworks.org.


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