|Lauren Foster (seated) and Robin Linden star in “The American Plan.”
Olivia Shaw may be the most sympathetic character in the 1990 Richard Greenberg play “The American Plan.”
Olivia, an African American maid, sees both the strengths and weaknesses in her wealthy German Jewish refugee employer, Eva Adler, and her troubled daughter, Lili.
At a lakeside Catskills resort in 1960, Olivia means to respect strong-willed Eva yet protect and care for the difficult but appealing Lili. Considering the challenging mother-daughter relationship that Olivia attempts to balance, and Lauren Foster’s earnest portrayal of the character, director Melanie Garber’s often wrong-headed approach to this strikingly ironic play is puzzling.
The respective ages of the actors playing Eva and Olivia, both of whom should be about 50 years old, is problematic. Both Audrey Lynn Sylvia, who plays Eva, and Foster look too young. Simple make-up changes or streaks in their hair would help greatly. Both women walk too energetically in the first act, a characteristic of more common among youth than the middle aged.
Then there is the back story and the scenario of the play. Eva claims to have escaped on the last boat out of Nazi Germany. According to Lili, her mother often observes that “The Nazis haven’t found us /But darling they’re all around us.” Dialect coach Caroline L. Price could be doing more with Sylvia’s Germany accent and pronunciation of Yiddish.
Garber needs to establish the conflict between Eva and Lili more crisply. Sylvia calls to mind the similarly domineering parent in Henry James’ classic short novel “Washington Square,” adapted to the stage as “The Heiress.”
Greenberg even alludes to Washington Square during the play. In James’ novel and Greenberg’s play, the parent may be on to something, but possessiveness works at odds with concern for a child’s future. Instead Sylvia lacks the steely demeanor and sardonic irony the role of Eva demands.
Also, Robyn Linden needs to make Lili both otherworldly and sympathetic. Lili admits she feels trapped and looks to a mysterious young man named Nick who swims over from the hotel to rescue her. The story would be well-served with more tension development between Lili and Nick.
Fortunately, things pick up in the smoother second act, where tensions properly escalate. The appearance of the talented Mikey DiLoreto as Gil Harbison takes the play to a dramatic level.
DiLoreto finds Gil’s revealing emotional reserves and bountiful spirit in exchanges with Eva. Sylvia also has more fire. Foster expressively demonstrates Olivia’s aging as well as her enduring care for Lili in the final scene at the family’s Manhattan home. Robyn Linden finds more of Lili’s complexity in the second act but could do with more inner haunting in the final scene.
Characters struggle with a loss of nerve in “The American Plan.” Will Lili determine her own future, or will Nick come through as Prince Charming? Does Gil have a different kind of American plan that includes Nick as well as himself? Theatergoers can hope for a stronger first act so that the compelling second one is more of a follow through for Greenberg’s gripping play than a study in contrast.
The “American Plan,” Happy Medium Theatre, Factory Theatre, through June 17.