On the Stage: Our Town, The American Plan, and Ruined

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At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, MTC’s Broadway outpost, you have this one last weekend to catch Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan starring one of Edward Albee’s favorite actresses, Mercedes Ruehl, as the maternal presence whose beastliness has been caused by her own survival of the Holocaust.

With echoes of other beastly maternal narratives — The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, Light in the Piazza — Greenberg has fashioned a play about emotional subterfuge and a kind of warped devotion that lashes the loved to those who love them for all their own convoluted reasons.

Most of the play takes place in the Catskills one summer right before the dawn of the 1960s and there is that sense of inchoate freedom – sexual and political — covering the play like some mist off a Catskills lake.

Ruehl is riveting in the role of the monstrous mother with the thick German accent — yet I was never sure if she was riveting because she was so good or because she was so bad. But I often have that response to her. Lily Rabe who plays her daugher, who is lashed with all that maternal love, is becoming one of our most enchanting stage actresses. And there is beefcake to behold in the first lakeside scene and a gay subplot as well. It’s all a bit diffuse finally, but definitely a fine production — directed by David Grindley — of a flawed early Greenberg play.

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The American Plan, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

***RUINED

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I was spellbound from beginning to end by Ruined at New York City Center Stage I, MTC’s outpost on 55th Street. Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whorisky, it is another transfer from Chicago, this time from the Goodman Theatre.

Set in the bar/whore house in a small mining town in the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the play is exotic in its locale and yet its dramatic concerns are more commonplace — how do its protagonists emotionally survive in a world that is cruel and increasingly loveless?

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Nottage has fashioned a singular drama from this commonplace concern as she — through the beauty of her language and the visceral use of African music and songs — takes us on an emotional journey with the madam of the whorehouse and her girls who have been "saved" after being repeatedly raped at the hands of war-weary soldiers.

Again, this is yet another exquisite cast of actors, which includes the almost eerily beautiful daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad—  Condola Rashad — making her New York debut as one of the “ruined” women of the title. Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Mama Nadi, the madam of the house — kind of Congolese Mother Courage — so seamlessly becomes her character that one forgets at times one is watching a performance. But it is Russell Gebert Jones, as the one kindhearted man in the play, who will steal your heart just as he finally does Mama Nadi’s in the show’s slightly sentimental — though profoundly hard-earned — finale. Bravo to all concerned.

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Ruined New York City Center, Stage I,
131 West 55th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

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Comments

  1. says

    My but that was quite the scremaing rave for “Our Town,” Kevin. I’ve always liked it, but I like “The Skin of Our Teeth” even more.

    That Albee reports his being deeply closeted is quite sad. There was no way for a man of his generation to be ‘out” as we know it today. But was he “in” even to himself? That’s just awful.

    “Our Town” has a very powerful emotional directness in its simplicity. It’s beyond being a mere “standard” for high school, college and amateur productions. There was a news item a few weeks back stating that in recent times its been performed more than any other play.

    Your placing it on a higher peg than O’Neill and Albee moves me to take a look at it again.

  2. Derrick from Philly says

    Williams, Wilder, Albee…

    Three of the greatest American playwrights were/are gay. Maybe four…did Lillian Hellman “play for both teams” too?

    Thanks, Kevin.

  3. Derrick from Philly says

    But was she anti-Lesbian, TANK? Anyway, I love her work, not the woman. She was kinda’ mean…..nevermind, I hope she wasn’t bi.

    Oh, you know that there are many who will kill to keep O’Neill at the top of anybody’s list of top American playwrights.

  4. d.wilder says

    Agreed about Natasha’s performance in Cabaret. I can’t hear the title song ever without picturing her throwing the mic stand to the ground, face drained of blood, sweating, and storming off stage. That performance was devastating, as is, on a much greater scale, the news of her passing.

  5. David B. 2 says

    David E — yes I agree with Kevin Our Town beats them all — I saw it in North Hollywood several years ago now in a great production with Emily Deschanel in the lead (Laura?) and it was very moving.

    Also — Lillian Hellman was a little terror == I saw the Liz Taylor – Little Foxes at the Kennedy Center in the 70s and was at opening night. The audience sat in silence for ten minutes after curtain waiting for the performance to begin… what were we waiting for? Suddenly the doors fling open in the back of the auditorium and a small coffee table of a woman with elaborate hair in a fur comes waddling down the aisle — my mother asked — “well who does she think she is?” and I had to turn to her and say “That’s the playwright Mom” and Miss Lillian went to center in the front row and the curtains rose….

  6. Robert says

    Kevin,
    Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Lynn Nottage’s RUINED, is a woman. She plays Sophie, the sad woman who was deserted by her husband. Check your Playbill. However, you were right about one thing…Quincy was wonderful…it’s just that she wasn’t the character you thought she was.

  7. greg says

    I love your reviews and insights, but I am baffled by how you – or anyone, including the NYT – could find this last production of _Dividing The Estate_ anything but a dumbed-down, sit-commish waste of time. Poor Elizabeth Ashley, walking up and down those stairs with absolutely no good reason, and Hallie Foote’s character, with her one-note line readings and clumpy walk, more a Broadway Steve Urkel than anything else. I could imagine a production that found subtlety and local characters in that script but this horrid boring go-for-the-laughs disappointment was not it.

  8. IEW says

    Having taught a dozen seminars on Horton Foote I share your tears. His Orphans Cycle, especially 1918 and On Valentine’s Day are like time capsules of the first part of the last century and Trip to Bountiful moves me like the smell of my grandmother’s perfume. And both Foote and Wilder made marks on motion pictures (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shadow of a Doubt). I’m so glad to hear you put Our Town in its rightful place. Skin of Our Teeth is my favorite play but Our Town is truly American Theatre. With a board, a few chairs, a ladder and the cumulative imagination of the actors and the audience Wilder paints the family, the irony, and the continuity that is at the heart of our life. I’m glad to know Simon and the choir move you to tears in this new production. I wish I could see it. The wedding always gets me. And the baking of bread and snapping of beans. And the quiet sitting on the hillside while those still of the world are trapped in their little boxes. Heaven would be a world peopled by Wilder and Foote.

  9. rudy says

    I have always loved “Our Town,” even in high school and college productions. This latest production is indeed stellar but the finest production I have ever seen was in the late 90s at The Arena Stage in DC. The audience sobbed openly for a full ten minutes before collecting ourselves to give a well-deserved and spontaneous standing ovation. The actor who portrayed George Gibbs, in particular, was truly heart-breaking, without one whit of sentimentality.

    I is interesting that you did not mention the hesitancy of George and Emily to get married and assume a “normal” life. This is often interpreted as Wilder’s sly reference to the inability of gay people to get married. For this, and many other reasons, “Our Town” remains topical and affecting.

    Sadly, I missed “The American Plan” but I adore Mercedes Ruehl. She was simply breath-taking in “The Rose Tatoo” with Anthony LaPagilia. I cannot imagine her being anything but great, so I am a bit confused by your “so bad” criticism.

    Thanks Andy for including theatre reviews in your blog. Although I rarely agree with Mr. Sessums, I appreciate his views.

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