Review: The American Plan, St James Theatre

“If ever there were such a one, I am she”

Perhaps with an eye to the crowded marketplace that is London theatreland and trying to find a niche for itself, the St James Theatre has taken to transferring in productions, providing a mid-sized space for shows like Finborough transfer London Wall, Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son and now The American Plan, fresh from the Theatre Royal Bath. Some of the risk may be mitigated this way but the choice of play remains equally important and with Richard Greenberg’s 1990 work, I’m not so sure they’ve hit on a great success.

David Grindley first directed this play in New York in 2009 and clearly enamoured of it, has returned to the show and assembled an excellent cast to do so, not least Diana Quick, Doña Croll and Emily Taaffe. And he undoubtedly encourages some marvellous performances from them and the men of the cast, Luke Allen-Gale and Mark Edel-Hunt, but it just never struck me as a play that was worth reviving – it’s heavy-handed, tonally confused and ultimately for me, just not engaging enough. 

Set in the sixties in a luxurious holiday camp in upstate New York, a wealthy German/Jewish mother and daughter pass the time on the fringes of the resort but when handsome journalist Nick and his dripping torso burst into their lives, their uneasy equilibrium is disturbed. For mentally fragile heiress Lili is a college dropout and champing at the bit for greater freedom from fierce mother Eva who guards over her with an imperious hauteur. Nick soon works his way into Lili’s affections but as we are left questioning how genuine his motives are, it gradually becomes apparent that both Lili and Eva have their own reasons for directing the course of this relationship.

Quick’s Eva is quick-witted and deftly manipulative as she keeps us guessing as to just how much – if any – maternal concern governs her behaviour. And Taaffe is excellent as the pained Lili, so caught up in her fantastical take on life that we’re never sure just how cognisant she really is until too late. Allen-Gale as the picture-perfect American Nick matches up well with Taaffe in portraying young people trying a little too soon to act as adults and a late addition to the cast, Edel-Hunt’s Gil who complicates the sexual dynamics of the piece considerably whilst dazzling all with his preppy charm, is also strong.

But the quality of the acting was never enough for me, the constituent parts not adding up to anything near greater than the whole, as it veered perilously close to dullness, crippled by my near-complete lack of engagement with any of the characters and their so-called travails. Greenberg may have been aiming for enigmatic with this play but it is a definite mis-fire for me. And leads one to long for a greater sense of artistic direction from the St James, something a bit more daring would suit me fine but any sense of definition about what it is they are hoping to add to the theatre landscape would certainly help to boost its chances and help it find a place and an audience. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 10th August

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