Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht sit at the same table but don’t look at one another, nor talk to each other, at the beginning of this exquisitely acted production of David Auburn’s gauzy, bittersweet, and largely inert new play. Instead, in long, alternating monologues addressed to the audience, each actress describes the friendship that their characters Diana and Alice once had – in (you guessed it) the Summer of 1976.
Auburn paints the friendship as unlikely; the two women didn’t like each other at first because they seemed so different – Hecht’s Alice viewing Diana as a snob and a perfectionist, Linney’s Diana viewing Alice as a slob and a “sleepy-eyed little hippie” who reads “middlebrow” books. But Diana learns that Alice went to graduate school and has read Henry James, and Alice learns that Diana is not just a straight arrow, having brought her child into the world as a result of a two-night fling with a glassblower in college. “I mean, this is obvious now,” Alice says, “but it seemed like a big revelation at the time, I was young — that people aren’t just one thing.”
Actually, though, both were young mothers of five-year-old daughters who had recently moved to Columbus, Ohio for Ohio State University, Diana to teach art, Alice because her husband Doug was hired as an economics professor. In other words, they shared a race, gender, social class, educational level and generational worldview with each other – and, not incidentally, surely with most of the subscribers of Manhattan Theater Club attending this play at Samuel J. Friedman Theater.
“We became friends, as you often do, through our children,” Diana explains. Their kids, Holly and Gretchen, got along from the get-go, so Alice and Diana felt forced to try to get along as well – until they genuinely bonded after they shared a joint and helped each other through various immediate troubles, and realized they were both unhappy.
To paraphrase the poignant and loaded last line of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the two friends were happy being unhappy together… “for a time.”
And so was I happy for a time, to bask in the company of these two phenomenally persuasive and appealing actresses. There were even moments when they stood up and talked directly to one another. A highlight was when Linney briefly portrays Alice’s husband Doug in several short scenes, one of which is humorous and another, almost dramatic. I say almost, because it’s interrupted by a scene of Alice telling Diana what happened between her and Doug, which is interrupted by Diana telling us what Alice told her (“So that I don’t have to enact the histrionics, which I would no doubt do badly, I’ll just summarize for you what Alice told me her husband told her….”)
I can’t know for sure why the playwright chose to depict this moment in the play at such a double remove. He might have thought that, with only the two actresses on stage, it might have been too awkward to make Doug a full-fledged embodied character. What I can say (without spoiler details) is that what happens between Doug and Alice comes closest to a significant event — the most significant event in a play that’s not really about events at all. It’s about the ebb and flow of a long-lost friendship.
I suspect Auburn, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning play “Proof,” is aware that some theatergoers would find his spare story insufficiently stimulating. My evidence are his unfortunate feints in the play. At one point, for example, Diana describes and acts out how she is being seduced by Merle, the college student that Alice and Doug hired to paint their house (“I knew immediately what was happening; there was no surprise, no shock as one of the hands moved to a breast, the other to my waist…”) But eventually we learn that this was a “sex-dream.” It didn’t happen. Another fake action scene feels even more jarring, a kind of betrayal.
“Summer, 1976” has the modest lyricism of a short story, albeit one voiced by world-class actresses. It’s no great surprise that Audible is planning to release a recording of it as an audiobook. It’s really only in the fake scenes that there’s any noticeable attempt at dynamic stagecraft, as if director Daniel Sullivan was generally committed to avoid anything as middlebrow as drama or scenery or movement. Such minimalism probably would have appealed to me more if “Summer, 1976” weren’t in a large Broadway theater, with tickets priced as high as $338.
Not long ago, I wondered aloud (i.e. on social media): If the four non-profit theater organizations that own Broadway theaters don’t offer lower ticket prices than the commercial houses, how does their non-profit status benefit the theatergoing public?
The great Jack Viertel, a Broadway theater executive and author of one of my favorite theater books, “The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built,” responded: “By creating the opportunity for us to see full Broadway productions of plays that no commercial producer would sensibly undertake.”
Manhattan Theater Club is one of the four Broadway non-profits; hence, “Summer, 1976.”
Samuel J. Friedman Theater through June 10, 2023
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $84 – $338
Written by David Auburn.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Projection design by Hana S. Kim. Original music by Greg Pliska.
Cast: Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht.