Disappearing Act | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Disappearing Act 

The American Plan

Roadworks Productions

at the Viaduct Theater

Playwright Richard Greenberg is preoccupied with disappearance. The Dazzle (now playing at Steppenwolf) offers an anatomy of self-effacement as two brothers bury themselves in trash and tics. The central concern in The American Plan, a 1990 Greenberg play receiving an outstanding production at Roadworks, is not so much disappearing as being disappeared--wished away, or actually eradicated, by others. It's a far more compelling subject and results in a more engaging play. Watching the Cheshire cat vanish palls quickly, but a cat-and-mouse game will always fascinate.

Greenberg ups the ante by setting most of The American Plan in 1960 at a Catskills resort among privileged Jews, haunted by their own contingent sense of existence even when nothing explicit threatens them. The playwright doesn't seem completely at ease with his Jewish identity, and the script's tone shifts randomly from Philip Roth to Arthur Miller to J.D. Salinger. But the issue of extermination remains a constant, always threatening to breach the surface. Widowed refugee Eva Adler sometimes approaches the Holocaust tragically ("I loved my husband for so many elegant reasons, and they killed him for such a crude one!") and sometimes comically (she approves of Simon Says because an arbitrary figure eliminates those who disobey--"a perfect game for Jews!"). But she has no other subject. Eva's efforts to protect her daughter, Lili, from the world seem less about Lili's fragility than her own, especially when the world arrives in the form of gorgeous gentile Nick Lockridge, emerging from a swim like a male Venus rising from the waves. When Eva intervenes in Lili and Nick's budding romance, it seems she's creating crises rather than preventing them. Or perhaps she just sees danger more clearly than we do. That's the gravamen of Greenberg's inquiry: is it paranoia if there's really a threat?

Meanwhile Eva expresses the contradictions of self-hatred with a contemptuous description of the eating habits of the Jews at the hotel across the lake, as though their biggest flaw were the refusal to disappear despite Eva's disdain or anyone else's. And finally Greenberg extends the issue of being wished away to all his characters: the mental problems of Nick's father--like those of the Collyer brothers in The Dazzle--come to be embodied in the neighbors' disapproval of his untidiness. "I stink up the street," Nick's father reportedly said as he reached the end of his tether. "You can do anything you want, but you can't stink up the street." Eva, Lili, Nick, his friend Gil, the African-American maid Olivia--all their suffering is compounded by other people's unwillingness to acknowledge it.

In The American Plan as in The Dazzle, Greenberg's central characters--here the Adlers--compete for attention by vying for the title of Craziest or Most Injured. They reject people they're trying to attract, wary of the newcomers' impact on existing ecosystems. And in both plays Greenberg focuses on wealthy characters, displaying a fascination he's unwilling to examine or even openly acknowledge. In this he's quintessentially American: we'll talk about race, about religion, about practically anything before we'll talk about class.

Roadworks director Kim Rubinstein has given superb definition to this stew of ideas by focusing on the characters, not the issues. Scene designer Geoffrey M. Curley supports her realistic focus, managing to turn a sod-covered raked platform into a persuasive lakefront estate. Most of the acting is first-rate, from Neda Spears in the undeveloped role of Olivia and Scott Duff as ultimate outsider Gil to the brilliant Lesley Bevan as Lili. Before the end of her solitary entrance, Bevan has shown us Lili's every warring impulse--between affectedness and sincerity, love for her mother and the need to escape her, the desire to settle down and the wish to soar. Yet as these feelings split her wide open during the course of the play, nothing feels predictable. Jason Vizza--an actor born for the "It boy" role in every Tennessee Williams play--is perfect as glitters-but-not-gold Nick.

The only weak link is Celeste Lynch as Eva. She does thoughtful work with this confusingly complex character but sabotages her efforts with a "Ve haf vays uf making you talk" accent and a tendency to underline serious moments with a moue that exaggerates her resemblance to Lily Tomlin's berserk telephone operator. To be fair to Lynch and Rubinstein, though, the part is a minefield. Eva is the play's Volpone, the one who sets traps for those around her only to have them spring shut on her own leg, and Greenberg has given her so many schemes it's hard to keep track of her intentions. Small wonder, then, that director and actress both attempt to clarify Eva's motives with the occasional stagy pause or melodramatic line reading.

More damaging, as in The Dazzle, is Greenberg's decision to skip many years in the middle of the play, presenting the characters' development as a fait accompli. This is the playwriting equivalent of "And then I woke up and it was all a dream," a shortcut that bypasses the hard work of showing each character's growth--or devolution. Any play whose final scene must include the line "It was all ten years ago" has some bricks missing from the foundation, as does any play in which someone has to say of a principal character, "She's not charmingly eccentric--she was hospitalized." Narration belongs in novels, not plays. Yet Greenberg himself creates the need for this observation by having characters who are crazy talk in arch epigrams like refugees from a Coward play.

It's exciting to watch a playwright take on major subjects, however, even when some of his big swings turn out to be whiffs. This play earns our attention if only for what it reveals about the challenges of addressing the Holocaust now that Nazis have become the all-purpose bogeymen. Greenberg wisely considers the topic from a vantage point that's "neither here nor there," as his characters say--neither with the benefit of 50 years' perspective nor with the immediacy of an ongoing war. It's a strategy that might have succeeded if he'd had a surer feel for the period of most of the play: in 1960 the polite Jewish approach to the subject was not to mention it, especially to gentiles. So it rings false for Lili--no matter how disoriented--to allude to the Nazis' use of Jews by describing her father's business as producing "something that's in lamps." Likewise, no young man in 1960 would dismiss another's comment with "whatever." Even without complete mastery of the milieu, though, Greenberg has an ear for dialogue that's both facile and subtle, recalling the best of Salinger.

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