Thursday, 11 July 2013

Theatre review: The American Plan

It's always nice when a play caters to my interests right from the start, like The American Plan does by opening with Luke Allen-Gale climbing out of a lake in bathing trunks, soaking wet. He eventually puts his clothes back on but Richard Greenberg's play soon compensates in other ways. It's July 1960 and Nick (Allen-Gale) is the son of an old wealthy New York family, holidaying with friends in the Catskills. Finding the resort's full schedule of "fun" oppressive, he swims across the lake to an odd-looking house owned by Eva (Diana Quick,) a Jewish refugee who escaped Germany on the last ship out, before her husband came up with a useful but unexciting invention that made their fortune. Nick is captivated by Eva's daughter Lili (Emily Taaffe,) a compulsive fantasist who enjoys teasing him with lies like how her late father's mysterious invention was a reversible condom.

But there's signs that there's more going on than the wilful eccentricities of a spoilt rich girl, and Lili's lying, paranoia and screaming bouts of hysterics start to look like more than just a cry for attention. Just how ill she, and is she really paranoid or is her mother really the master manipulator Lili believes she is?

Sometimes if I'm a bit tired by the time I get to the theatre, like tonight, it takes fireworks to really get me interested but they're not necessary in Greenberg's play, a quieter, intimate affair that's been perfectly pitched by director David Grindley. Its success lies in the way it keeps you on the back foot - the characters we meet at the opening aren't quite who they say they are, and the play's structure is built around the uncovering of those secrets, usually by the frighteningly shrewd Eva. Lili's mother is definitely playing some kind of game but whether it's to split Lili and Nick up or ensure they get married is unclear, and her motivations keep you guessing. In the second act, the arrival of another young visitor from the resort, Gil, (Mark Edel- Hunt) further changes the dynamic between the characters, but even then you wonder if Eva predicted one of the big twists, and worked it into her plan.

Quick rules the roost as the apparently affable Eva, with a constant supply of sharp one-liners and the ability to turn on a sixpence to blackmail and manipulation as soon as someone's relaxed into a false sense of security. Her sounding board is her maid Olivia (Dona Croll,) somewhere between a henchman and a conscience, politely judgmental at the fact that Eva went through a war and her main sadness is leaving her spoons behind. Taaffe was a disappointing Viola last year but is much stronger as the mercurial Lili, and Allen-Gale is good both as the charming chancer we first meet and then when things start to fall apart for him in various directions.

Dominated by a woman who believes "happiness is real, but not for us" and seems determined to turn her daughter into herself, The American Plan is a rather dark play at heart, and despite the setting of a scorching July Jonathan Fensom's set has an autumnal feel to reflect that. But it's shot through with humour, increasing in fact in the second act, while the plot twists and mystery over who these people are and what they're planning under their layers of pretense kept me glued to the action.

The American Plan by Richard Greenberg is booking until the 10th of August at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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