PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The American Plan — Boys in the Borscht Belt

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The American Plan — Boys in the Borscht Belt
The Catskills are alive with gentlemen callers in the Richard Greenberg play, The American Plan, which bowed Jan. 22 at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman.
The American Plan's Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe
The American Plan's Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe Photo by Aubrey Reuben

A witty, wealthy and majestically Teutonic Mercedes Ruehl dominates the young and randy set here as Eva Adler, a matriarch who doesn't miss a trick about any candidate who comes courting her daughter, Lili (including spying on some moonlight kissing), and still she manipulates her toward a half-baked marriage.

The literary woods, of course, are full of arrivistes who wed themselves into the cushy life — "An American Tragedy" and "Washington Square," to cite Montgomery Clift's part of the forest (in the films "A Place in the Sun" and "The Heiress") — but Greenberg congests the course of untrue love with the added fillip of having the old flame of the wannabe ardent-swain show up in the second act. Quelle awkward, to say the most!

This late-arriving arriviste subscribes to what he cynically calls "the American plan": marry money, make excellent husbands but maintain a little hedonism on the side. The trick, both men come to discover, lies in actually practicing what they preach. Manhattan Theatre Club produced this — and two previous New York versions of the 1990 play, which must be an in-house record. Joan Copeland had the Ruehl role in both MTC editions (January-February 1990, and again in December 1990, both Off-Broadway) and kept it within supporting-rank boundaries while the star-casting went to the American planners (Tate Donovan and Eric Stoltz in the first version; D.W. Moffett and Jonathan Walker in the second).

Having Ruehl bring star-power-to-spare to a plainly supporting part gives the production a decided dazzle. "Well, Eva's important to the play," the actress reasoned, at the after-party at the Hard Rock Café. "She's a powerful creature, a little bit like [The Seagull's] Arkadina."

[flipbook] Then there are the laughs she mines from the accent, her facial tics and timing coming from untangling the thick Germanic coating she has given Greenberg's throwaways. "The German accent, it can be funny," she said. This particular one comes from two sources: "There was a nurse in a doctor's office in New York, whose name was Rrrrosemairrrre, and she was from Germany, and she would say, 'Mercedes, it is time for us to take your blood. Now, sit down in that chair and be quiet.' She was one, and the other one was Irene Worth in Lost in Yonkers, who played my German mother. I sometimes feel like I am channeling Irene in this." [That Neil Simon Pulitzer Prize-winner won Tony Awards for both actresses.]

"I'm having a rollicking good time with this. Know what's fun? I'm the older actress in the group — the senior member — so I get to be relaxed and tell 'em, 'It's just a play' and that we're going to keep learning and growing and figuring out what this play is about — beyond critics, beyond opening. The fun has just begun. I think I'm serving a good purpose. They're all so young, and they get so nervous about these things."

David Grindley, the British director making his third Broadway showing in as many years, enjoys having a star like Ruehl shining out of a supporting role. "I don't think the play is being upended by what's she's doing," he said. "I think what she's doing is demanding that the others come up to scratch — and that's exactly what they do. It always struck me as a woman's play. It feels very much to be about the women.

"I think the writing's very good. It's got great wit. It plays to my métier, which has a large degree of humor in it that allows the audience into the show. As an audience, you get into the room and then lock the door, and it takes you to an emotional place that perhaps you don't expect. I think it's very effective that way. It becomes a much more arresting and emotionally affecting evening than you were first expecting."

In the lead role of Nick Lockridge (even the name smacks, accurately, of something not to be believed), Grindley cast a pet: Kieran Campion. "Kieran is my longest-serving member of The Grindley Repertory Company," he joked. "He has done everything I've done in New York. He was the captured German in Journey's End and Freddie in Pygmalion and, now, Nick in The American Plan. He's just a great actor. He's very responsive, and he deserves a break. He's a fantastic leading man who hasn't had the opportunity he deserves, and I hope they give him an opportunity."

In between Grindley gigs, Campion cracked, "I don't work." He's quite grateful to get this shot. "Nick Lockridge is an incredibly well-drawn character with a tremendous journey, going from somebody who looks like nothing has ever happened to him to a shell of his former self at the end of the play. How he gets there is really exciting."

Lily Rabe is a snug fit for Lili Adler, excelling in everything from jump-rope (brava, brava!) to a heavy-duty final scene where she heartbreakingly reveals the collateral damage of fortune-hunting. Mostly, she spends her time struggling to get out of her mother's shadow, clutching at straws to achieve that end.

"She's desperate to get out of her circumstances," explained Rabe, "desperate to become an independent woman and to break away from her mother. I think she's really trying to find her way in the world and to try to be able to be her own person. She has been very stunted in her childhood, very kept and isolated by her mother."

And, as if more vulnerability was required, Rabe is mostly barefoot. "The designer said, 'I've been thinking. I really want you barefoot.' I said 'Okay.' I love that. I did another play — Crimes of the Heart — where I was practically barefoot throughout."

Also under a heading of Been There-Done That is Austin Lysy in "the other man" role, Gil Harbison. He turns out to be, regardless of gender, quite a good kisser. "It's not the first time I've had to kiss a man on stage," he admitted. "I'm used to it."

Clearly, he enjoys his character's cauldron-stirring. "He's fun, kinda like a trickster, actually. He's not as neurotic as Nick about having to live in two different worlds at once. He gets to come in in Act II and mix everything up for everybody — that's always fun. I think of him as a trickster with a real heart. He really loves this guy, and he's trying to figure out a way to be homosexual at a time when it wasn't at all accepted, and I think he has a really good plan. It's too bad that it doesn't work out."

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The play's fifth character is not a fifth wheel but a telling bystander careful to steer clear of the amorous mishagosh swirling around her. Brenda Pressley plays Olivia, the Adler maid, with an all-seeing, all-knowing indifference. It's in her walk, upright and measured for the most of the play and eventually slowed by age for the play's postscript which occurs a decade later. "Everybody talks about that walk," she said. A veteran of August Wilson angst (and most recently Leslie Lee's in The First Breeze of Summer), Pressley relished this becalming change of pace. "It has been such a gift to be on a different planet," she trilled. "Richard's writing is so rich. I've always said, 'It's a different kind of animal — this particular play — and it's the writing.' Richard Greenberg saw this character, and I've just been given the opportunity to bring it to life — and what an honor it is. There's a stillness to Olivia Shaw that David Grindley insisted upon — insisted that I focus in on a stillness, and with that stillness comes a dignity and a grace. It's all there because she sees all and she demands all."

It's hard not to ask author Greenberg, whose adaptation of Pal Joey opened last month and whose American Plan opens this month, what he is doing next month.

Nothing, he said, "but a month later, I go to South Coast Rep and work on a new play there, Our Mother's Brief Affair. That's the storyline for quite a while, then it shifts."

He has seen four different productions of The American Plan — "three in New York and one in San Diego — and I've liked them all very much. There are different emphases each time," he hastened to add, "but all seem equally valid to me."

Two things prompted the play in the first place: "One, I was staying in the Catskills at a house that I hated, and I wanted to write my way out. It was really the house itself. I know that there is no such thing as a haunted house — but this one was. "Also, I saw a moment between an adult woman and her elderly mother that I found sorta shocking and compelling, and it made me think about them a lot, so I had them in mind a while, and I was interested in tracing back that relationship to its roots."

No, those roots didn't go back to "Now, Voyager." He never saw that Bette Davis-Gladys Cooper sudser, but he did see the movie version of The Heiress, and he readily concedes, "Oh, I know there's a little hauntings of Henry James in it."

"I'll say," said Cherry Jones, after the curtain had fallen, quickly admitting to memories of Morris Townsend, the no-show suitor to her Tony-winning Heiress. "How could I not think of that?" she asked. "A girl with a suitcase, getting stood up?"

Her other Tony-nominated role — Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt — was also on her mind since, earlier in the day, Oscar nominations were doled out to all four of the principals in the movie version (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis) just as the original stage quartet was Tony-nominated (Jones, Brian F. O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh and Adriane Lenox).

"I was so thrilled today that they were all nominated and that John's screenplay was nominated. I think that's fantastic." She did have her doubts about Hoffman being in the right category (supporting, unlike O'Byrne). "Oh, you know how it is. You know how they play that game. They do the same thing here [for the Tonys], right?"

Of course, she said, she watched the inauguration — and "with a great empathy." [She plays the President of the United States on TV's "24" series.] "I only wish Obama had had my Supreme Court Justice. He would have gotten it right," she laughed.

Lenox, who won a Tony for Doubt, too, was one of several Tony winners at the opening. Others included four-timer Boyd Gaines (who should have copped another for Journey's End), two-timer Donna Murphy, playwright Alfred Uhry, Marian Seldes, choreographer-turning-director Rob Ashford, Phyllis Newman, composer Henry Krieger (taking his Dreamgirls to Korea in another week) and Victoria Clark.

Another Journey's End recruit and Tony winner (for I Am My Own Wife), Jefferson Mays, was waxing eloquent about the new revival: "I think Mercedes did a wonderful job in my role," he quipped, "just brilliant. It's an extraordinary play and an exquisite production. I was just talking to Jonathan Fensom, the set designer, and said it was one of the most dynamic sets I've ever seen in my life. It was a true character. The lake, the sort of primordial ooze over which everyone was precariously balanced and that wonderful dock that was going to nowhere." He also liked the scene-changing sweep of curtains that were painted as a thick forest. "It was the most elegant use of curtains. And then just the acting across the boards was so beautiful. It's a rare thing to have this sort of evening in theatre."

Mays' next project is a revival of the late Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms, which director Maria (The 39 Steps) Aiken is putting up this summer. "It's a beautiful, Chekhovian play. We're doing it in Williamstown and then hopefully elsewhere. Jay Binder's here, and he's casting it. I'm going to interrogate him in a few minutes."

The star of Grindley's next Broadway offering, Matthew Broderick, arrived with the glamorous Mrs., Sarah Jessica Parker, touching off their paparazzi frenzy. On March 10, Broderick starts rehearsing a revival of Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist. Grindley directed a very well received version of it in the U.K. at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005.

Also attending: Sarah Paulson (doing "Cupid" with Bobby Canavale for ABC), director Richard Maltby Jr. (moving The Story of My Life into the Booth on Saturday to begin performances on Tuesday), Judy Blazer, Geraldine Hughes (returning to the stage swing of things after "Gran Torino" — "I was Clint Eastwood's daughter-in-law who stole all the jewels"), playwright Theresa Rebeck, Patricia Clarkson (Greenberg's ex-roommate and abiding muse — although sidetracked with film work in recent years), director Gordon Greenberg (no kin to Richard), Blanche Baker (back in the business again: "I took a break because I have four children, and I just recently went back. I did a film with Kevin Bacon called 'Taking Chance' for HBO"), Joan Rivers, Harriet D. Foy, Rynel Johnson, Liz Smith, Pal Joey director Joe Mantello and Jon Robin Baitz, jazz singer-pianist Peter Cincotti, a luscious-looking Orfeh ("I just finished Legally Blonde, and I'm still resting from the musical-theatre grind —it has been ten years — so I can concentrate more on film and television right now.") and her Andy Karl.

David Rabe and Jill Clayburgh were beaming like proud parents of the leading lady, which they indeed were. "I'm a nervous wreck," confessed Clayburgh, who nevertheless looked elegant in what she offhandedly called "a very old Christian Dior." She has had it with TV for a while and is shopping around for theatre projects. Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, brought her back to Broadway after a 20-year intermission, and she hints he may be the author of her next stage outing.

Another proud parent at the party was William Morris top honcho David Kolodner, sporting the most colorful and commented-on tie of the night — a primitive art design Grandma Moses might have come out of permanent retirement to do. It was the handiwork of his daughter, who turns ten next week. "If you're lucky, you'll catch me with the one my son did. I have twins. I got them a kit for the holidays. I said, 'It's a present for you, but it turns into a present for me.' It was two white ties with an array of paints." With a little bit of luck, he'll never go near a Tie-Rack store again . . .

The curtain call of <i>The American Plan.</i>
The curtain call of The American Plan. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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