The glory days of the resorts in the Catskills are familiar objects of "Dirty Dancing" nostalgia and totems of a vanished mode of leisure with a proud showbiz tradition. But there is no shrewder analysis of the complexities of that repressive era than Richard Greenberg's fine 1990 drama, "The American Plan," which points out with compassion and wisdom that the diversity — ethnic, sexual, intellectual — of Americans just was never a good fit for all-inclusive dining. Even cruise ships, with their new specialty restaurants, have finally figured this out. A la carte now rules the waves.
One generation ago, Greenberg is arguing, those whose who didn't like the menus or the meal times simply learned to shut up and sit down, lest they be denied access to all the jewels visible around the necks of the diners. But, as this play makes very clear, a pot can only simmer for so long before it spills and burns.
Nothing actually explodes in "The American Plan," a drama circa 1960, set across the lake from one such resort, where a clutch of marginalized characters (a rich Jewish widow; her quirky, smart, restless daughter; their stoic, African-American domestic companion; the handsome, if questionable, young man who swims over to their property) look out on the majority, silhouetted at supper, and ponder why they can't quite fit their seemingly happy mold. They claim not to care, but the point of the play is that care they surely do. They all know the world is run from the other side of the lake.
This play, which helped make Greenberg's formidable career, crops up every few years in Chicago. There was a production in the 1990s at the now-defunct National Jewish Theater in Skokie and a visually rich take by Roadworks Production in 2002. The latest version, directed by Robin Witt for The Artistic Home with Kathy Scambiatterra, Nick Horst and Margaret Katch in the lead roles, has a prosaic set but a beautiful collection of costumes (from Emily McConnell). And Witt's production highlights some strong individual scenes and unstinting performances, especially from the superb Tonya Simmons, who plays the stoic Olivia, the buttoned-up domestic employee who nurtures, abides and observes.
At times, you find yourself taken in by the Hatch's energetic Lili, the young girl so desperate to be rescued from her summer that she pays insufficient attention to the truth behind the rescuer, and both Horst's dissembling Nick and Tim Musachio, who plays a mysterious, late-in-the-play arrival who seems to know something about everybody. Musachio, who is both playful and dangerous, greatly enlivens the proceedings. But one of the main problems of this production is that Katch is not especially empathetic or vulnerable. She catches Lili's eccentricity and emotional neuroses, for sure, but not fully the simpler sensuality and compassion that beats beneath.
Those involving subtexts are also overly well hidden in Scambiatterra's Eva. The intense, carefully wrought performance has its moments, but Scambiatterra does not fully reveal the pain beneath the outer protestations and manipulations. And, therefore, you stay distant from the mother-and-daughter pair whose complexity and yearning lie at the heart of the drama.
Witt also allows her soundtrack, which consists of the likes of Bobby Darin, Helen Merrill and The Chantels, to overwhelm the human interaction. And the show, partially as a consequence of that, has too little pace and tension and transitions that don't flow. The show, all in all, gets too caught up in the audio clutter of the Catskills — resonant stuff, sure, but "The American Plan" also has a far broader metaphoric menu.
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $28-$32 at 773-327-5252 or stage773.org