A sharp right hook to the mores and morals of America’s gilded mid-century
It’s a hot summer in the Catskill Mountains, some time in the 1960s. Cicadas are whirring.
Lili Adler (Emily Taaffe) is the beautiful, brittle daughter of Eva (Diana Quick), a German-Jewish refugee who dreams of the country she left behind. Lili’s father, an inventor (“something in lamps”), is dead, and the two live a quiet, frustrated existence on the lake with Olivia, their companion-cum-maid, played with wry humour by Dona Croll.
When the hunky all-American Nick (Luke Allen-Gale) plunges into their lives, straight from a swim in the lake, Lili declares he is a “tabula rasa”, but of course he is nothing as he seems. Lili begins to fall for him, but her erratic behaviour (“My mind doesn’t run to simple ways,” she despairs) and his secretive existence threaten their fledgling intimacy.
A simple set, painted with trees, is dominated by a queasily tilted wooden pier, which points across the lake to where the tourists at the reviled local hotel indulge in clamorous entertainments and the titular “American Plan”, an all-you-can-eat inclusive package deal, popular at the time. It also divides the bunch of outsiders from the normal social whirl.
The secrets keep unfolding with a series of emotional hair-pin bends and a twist that made the audience gasp. The acting is also excellent: Lili, at first rather grating, reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s Esther in The Bell Jar: intelligent, desperate, “preoccupational”, while Nick, a preppy pin-up in boat shoes with a JFK curl, is by turn a vulnerable boy, troubled manipulator and the handsome knight of Lili’s imaginings.
But it is Eva, the “tsarina across the lake” who steals the show, with a performance that shifts from sharp wit to knowing pomposity to maternal protectiveness to guile. The ultimate nightmare mother-in-law.
US playwright Richard Greenberg’s play, first performed in 1990 and now adapted by David Grindley and Theatre Royal Bath, is layer upon layer of manipulations, repressions, truths and untruths, but it seems as though a delicate happiness may finally be in store for all involved, when a late arrival threatens to unsettle the applecart once more.
While the sheer amount of talk does make the pace drag a little in the second act, this is an emotionally involving and entertaining play, and delivers yet another sharp right hook to the mores and morals of America’s gilded mid-century.
And for those, like me, who love mid-century fashions, the costumes were a dream.
Words: Katie Allen