Mary-Louise’s Bare Bum Had Me Hedda-ing for the Exits!

I jumped when I heard that line. It’s how I feel about the well-regarded plays of Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, Three Days in Rain). The current revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club of Thwe American Plan (1990) provides a vivid example of his prodigious articulacy. Whereas the unpretentious Mr. Friel is a natural poet, Mr. Greenberg’s self-conscious literary dramas always strike me as on the verge.

The American Plan—inspired by Henry James’ Washington Square, along with a splash of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie—is archly poetic. It’s scattershot and overwritten, striving for effect. You sense too much that Mr. Greenberg is making it up as he goes along.

The play has “the authentic ring of phony fiction.” And yet its beguiling opening scenes between the mentally fragile 20-year-old fantasist, Lili (played by the super Lily Rabe), and her unexpected visitor from across the lake—a “gentleman caller,” you might say—promises far better things than the breathless romance that Mr. Greenberg went on to write.

Whimsical Lili and her overbearing mother, Eva, a wealthy German-Jewish Holocaust survivor (played a shade too likably by Mercedes Ruehl), are spending the summer of 1960 in the family house across the lake from a Catskill resort. The first visitor, dashing Nick Lockridge, with whom Lili falls wildly, needily in love, is a liar, but not a good one. The second visitor, dashing Gil Harbinson, is a good liar.

Spoiler alert! Revelation follows upon revelation as Mr. Greenberg piles on the following:

Nick might be a homosexual who once had a fling with the homosexual Gil. Nick and the hapless Lili have decided to marry. Gil—it transpires—has become engaged to Nick’s former girlfriend, an heiress. But he seems likely to persuade the tempted Nick to run off with him in the moonlight. Lili doesn’t know about this. Her mother knows everything. You can’t put much past Eva.

“I feel that illusion of limitlessness, that challenge to embark … to sail to immerse oneself in an element for which one is not naturally, not physiologically, equipped.”

“We aren’t an eccentric family, just a little giddy around the circumference.”

“Nothing’s ever happened in my life. I’m a man who crosses moats.”

Who talks like this, except for Mr. Greenberg’s “poetic” mouthpieces and Henry James impersonators?

The American Plan is directed by another British director, David Grindley, at a stately, deeply respectful pace.

jheilpern@observer.com

Mary-Louise’s Bare Bum Had Me Hedda-ing for the Exits!