Maybe things’re different across the lake, where vacationers play nonstrenuous games and pound down chow on the American Plan: three squares, plus tea, coffee, and snack breaks. They’ve come to the Catskills in the summer of 1960, it would seem, not for relaxation but regimentation. Their vacation will be orderly, predictable, and without incident, just like last year and the year before: programmed fun.
On Lili’s side, the lake is the “River Styx,” the boundary between the Earth and Hades she crossed somewhere in her youth (“how can you take the sadness away,” her mother asks, “from a girl who learned it so early in life?”). Lili’s brilliant — referencing Milton, Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot — but, according to her mother, she’s also psychotic and cursed to live “an intricately unhappy life.”
In The American Plan, Richard Greenberg’s written a fascinating character: Lili’s an Ophelia who didn’t commit suicide. Possibly influenced by her German-Jewish’s family’s experiences during WWI, she projects the Holocaust onto the world, finding insidious intent everywhere (she’s convinced her mother murdered her father, for example). Lili’s cried “wolf” so many times she could utter the truth unvarnished and you’d only hear a howl.
In an irony so broad it becomes predictable, Lili’s right. Things, on this side of the lake at least, aren’t what they seem. Her mother’s two- and possibly even three-faced (does she care or doesn’t she — or, conditioned by Nazi horrors and oblivious to her own motives, is she smothering her daughter to save her from evils unseen?). Is Nick, Lili’s allegedly understanding Beau, just a gold-bricker after her inheritance? Olivia, the African-American maid, has a past, but at least she’s honest enough to admit that, if she confessed it, you wouldn’t like her anymore. By the time young Gil shows up, looking innocent as can be, his deeper motive comes as no surprise.
Like most illusion-versus-reality plays, American Plan suffers from a domino effect: once you realize things aren’t what they seem, you can anticipate that those to come will bring disillusionment as well. Sometimes Greenberg strikes a balance between both possibilities (Nick’s affections seem genuine, or do they mask a greater affection for his Main Chance?). But the second act unfolds as expected, its fatalistic payoff lacking the punch of the first act’s strong setup.
Greenberg is one of this country’s finest playwrights. But compared to his Three Days of Rain and Eastern Standard, American Plan is a minor work. Even so, the writing’s sharp and often quite witty, especially with Lili’s unique take on things: her controlling mother’s a “looming, late-Ibsenesque figure”; and, a variation on Shakespeare’s Miranda, Lili wishes that Nick was a brave new being, to whom “nothing ever happened.”
As Lili, Kate Arrington expertly handles the role’s emotional non sequiturs and leaps of language. Arrington also conveys the sense, throughout, that Lili knows the outcome. She’s read The American Plan, and much of her inner tension comes from struggling against the inevitable. She even references Ophelia, at one point, when drawn to the lakeshore of Wilson Chin’s appealing — albeit Asteroturfed — set.
As Nick, Patrick Zeller has one of the most striking entrances in recent memory — makes quite a splash, let’s say. He and Michael Kirby, as Gil, and Sharon Hope as dour Olivia, do capable work, However, Lili’s domineering, elitist mother Eva gets lost in Sandra Shipley’s thick German-Jewish accent and programmed affectations. Shipley is too strident, even in her calmer scenes, and too external. She’s a Tyrant, capital T. We watch the reality of imitative acting rather than the illusion of performance.
The elegant, creamy-white living room, with faux marble floor, at the beginning of Sarah Ruhl’s Clean House is so immaculate it’s the kind of place people photo-shoot rather than inhabit. To the eyes of its owner, a workaholic surgeon named Lane, however, the joint’s a sty. Worse, her Brazilian cleaning lady Mathilde refuses to work. She’d rather create a joke so perfect the hearer would die from laughter.
In Freudian terms, an anal fixation can cause an obsession with cleanliness, order, even perfection. Lane’s got one. So does her husband Charles, also a surgeon, and her sister Virginia, who once saw European ruins and wondered why someone hadn’t swept them away — and who offers to become Mathilde’s surrogate cleaner. Now in middle age, they’ve become so rigid they’re almost emotionally static. In a hybrid style that combines farce, operatic aria, and Gabriel García Márquez’s “magic realism,” The Clean House declares that anality is banality. In its place, Ruhl advocates a life as spontaneous as laughter.
“A good joke can clean out the insides,” Mathilde says, waving the author’s banner.
The play jumps to unexpected places — the Arctic circle, among them — and alliances: the cheating husband falls for an older woman (to whom he sings while operating on her). It also combines locales, as apples fall from one reality to another.
The San Diego Rep’s opening-night performance was tentative in spots (the various epiphanies could be more epiphanic, for example, and the cast could worry less about making the magic credible and just enjoy making it); in others, it reached the laughter-like spontaneity Ruhl requires. But throughout, as it wends its de-constricting way, The Clean House is a very, very funny play.
The American Plan, by Richard Greenberg
Cassius Carter Center Stage, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Kim Rubenstein; cast: Patrick Zeller, Kate Arrington, Sharon Hope, Sandra Shipley, Michael Kirby; scenic design, Wilson Chin; costumes, Emily Pepper; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through March 30; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-234-5623.
The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Claudia Vázquez, Rosina Reynolds, Annie Hinton, Ivonne Coll, Ron Choularton; scenic design, Victoria Petrovich; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Christian Deangelis; sound design/composer, Stephanie Robinson
Playing through March 22; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.