“People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do for each person,” starts a famous, anonymously written poem. Admittedly, these lines (and that life situation) are something almost all of us can relate to -- a fact that playwright David Auburn seems to be counting on in our reaction to his less-than-satisfying two-hander “Summer, 1976,” now debuting at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Indeed, familiarity doesn’t breed much enthusiasm nor contempt, just a mild case of frustration. While brilliantly acted by Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht (both of them smartly costumed by Linda Cho), the 90-minute play ultimately feels like a stretched-out anecdote. We wait for an exciting plot twist, but two arrive that turn out to be dream sequences, while another struck me as less-than-believable.
Further, as has been true of many other productions by the esteemed director Daniel Sullivan (known in the theater world for his extraordinary facility with actors), there’s minimal onstage action. Here, Diana (Linney) and Alice (Hecht) mostly sit around a mid-century modern dining table (the simple set is by John Lee Beatty) and recall their three-month bonding experience in Columbus, Ohio in alternating monologues.
The premise has promise. Diana, a struggling artist and part-time professor, and Alice, a professor’s wife who has seemingly abandoned any hopes of her own career, come together when their (unseen) daughters form a friendship. They are opposites who do not instantly attract as adult (non-sexual) playmates, but they eventually find common ground in admitting their basic unhappiness. They are, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, women living lives of quiet desperation.
For a while, though, that sadness is hidden beneath their brighter surfaces. Commanding with just a hint of vulnerability, Linney is stunning (in every sense of the word) as the chic, judgmental Diana, secure in her knowledge of antique desks and highbrow literature, her organizational skills, and even her culinary excellence. She claims to be the much better parent (though her child was conceived from a careless fling), and it takes a while to realize she is fooling herself – and knows it!
As the more open-hearted, open-minded Alice, Hecht brings an enormous amount of warmth and much-need humor to the stage. She’s like a dog who looks eager to be petted, but bites when the mood strikes. Disconcertingly, Alice is also written as a bit ditzy to “explain” why Diana may not really want to be her friend. Still, most everyone in the audience would likely prefer Alice’s companionship to Diana’s.
Alice also gets the short end of the proverbial stick through Auburn’s decision not to put some other characters on stage, even when they’re pivotal to the plot. I would have much preferred to have seen Alice’s uptight husband, Doug, or her laconic house painter Merle than have them briefly impersonated by these actresses. His strategy may be smart economically – this show will definitely have a long life in regional theatre -- but unwise dramatically.
As to why the play’s “action” takes place in 1976, the best reason I can come up with is that it allows for a brief visual display of fireworks (in honor of the Bicentennial). But what we really want is a far more explosive story.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Laura Linney, Jessica Hecht
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
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