A hot, sluggish summer’s day is the perfect preparation for this sweltering trip to the Catskills, a mountainous retreat north of New York City where, in Richard Greenberg’s rendering, hazy contentment masks desperately stifled desires. The livin’ is easy, the loving anything but – “Happiness exists, but only for other people,” sighs his self-styled tragic heroine, who dismisses a suitor’s ambitions with the bitterly curt “Everyone has pipe dreams.” The fashionable abundance of this early 1960s realm of leisure might appear a dream realised, but Greenberg skilfully exposes the suffocation of its enforced collective values.
The title of The American Plan refers to an all-in rate at the resort’s hotels, meaning guests paid a set amount for accommodation and food and could then consume as much as they liked. Such plenty was in stark contrast to recent wartime deprivation, yet it came with certain strictures, namely acceptance of an elite group’s social mores. Any deviation from this carefully maintained status quo might spell disaster.
Greenberg’s deviants are separated not just by behaviour, but by geography. Imperious German-Jewish emigrée Eva deliberately isolates herself and her family – troubled daughter Lili and Sphinx-like African-American companion Olivia – by residing on the other side of the lake from the mass of holidaymakers. Visitors to their enclave comment appreciatively on the contrast to the action “over there”, yet it is an inescapable fact that the people “over there” are the ones with power in this society. You can enjoy a respite from them, but you cannot opt out indefinitely.