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Theatre in Review: Summer, 1976 (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Jessica Hecht, Laura Linney. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

If you've ever wondered why Broadway needs the presence of companies like Manhattan Theatre Club, look no further than Summer, 1976. Even the savviest commercial producer would be challenged to put on this quiet, yet trenchant, character study. You can't elevator-pitch it; it's a conversation piece, literate, funny, and stealthy in its considerable impact. Playwright David Auburn is interested in the strange ways that even brief, seemingly casual, friendships can leave marks that last for decades. On the surface, it's rather like a finely wrought short story; underneath, deeper, more profound emotions are sounded.

Even if it were a much weaker piece of writing, Summer, 1976 would be a pleasure for Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht, both practiced spellbinders. Linney is Diana, an artist and single mother whose opinions are as firm as her posture. "Parents who can't or won't control their kids aren't upset when you do it for them," she avers. "They're grateful and ashamed." Then again, she thinks nothing of taking her small daughter, Gretchen, to hear Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, explaining to the bewildered child that it was written "in a spasm of agonized self-loathing for his capitulation to Stalinism, and in physical agony from his encroaching degenerative nerve disease." (Crushingly, Gretchen would rather be at home, watching Charlie's Angels.) Flattery will get your nowhere: When someone compliments her artwork, comparing it to Paul Klee, Diana, horrified, notes "I'd sweat blood to expunge the embarrassingly jejune infatuation I'd had with his work as an art student" -- a comment that may explain the unfinished works littering her otherwise immaculate home.

Diana discovers a new friend, and perfect foil, in Alice, the young wife of an economist angling for tenure. (The characters are part of the Ohio State University community, in the year of the US bicentennial.) A young mother and grad school dropout, Alice's pleasant, go-along-to-get along manner masks a sharp eye for other people's contradictions and a surprising amount of steel. She allows herself to be kidnapped by Diana for a road-trip furniture shopping expedition, graciously accepting the gift of an expensive Bauhaus-style desk that goes with nothing else in her house. But Diana goes too far in criticizing Alice's reading habits, especially the latter's "sun-bleached paperback copy of James Clavell's depressingly middlebrow novel Shogun, which she was toting around proudly like it was The Brothers Karamazov." Alice, moving onto Robin Cook's Coma, announces that next up is James Michener's Hawaii and the subject is closed, thank you very much.

Linney, an elegant bulldozer, and Hecht, as elusive as mist, are entirely convincing as the sort of opposites who might become fascinated with other, especially during a long, hot, idle Ohio summer. Auburn has a sharp eye for the politics and follies of academe, especially in a subplot involving a closed economy, devised by Alice's husband, in which participating couples are given a certain amount of scrip tradable for babysitting duties. (Alice, low on funds, prints additional currency, sharing it with Diana and other friends, thereby introducing Weimar-level inflation into the system.) But a series of crises triggers major revelations: Diana, despite her patrician manner and family money, lives a life shaped by disappointment and loneliness, while Alice, faced with the collapse of her marriage in a revelation you won't see coming, proves more resilient than suspected. As Alice, contemplating the impulsive fling that got the supremely controlled Diana pregnant, muses, "So it made me think -- I mean, this is obvious now, but it seemed like a big revelation at the time, I was young -- that people aren't just one thing."

The subtle interplay between Diana and Alice is superbly captured by Linney and Hecht, who, initially eyeing each other skeptically, form an alliance that lingers through the years. Linney is especially deft at catching Auburn's narrative curveballs, running us through a couple of what-if scenarios that don't come to fruition. Hecht deploys her uncanny skill at finding off-center laughs in the most unremarkable line. And both endow their decades-later reunion with a subdued, but powerful, feeling of melancholy. Even if their relationship doesn't endure, each remains for the other an indelible marker of that turning point summer.

Director Daniel Sullivan provides plenty of room for his stars to exercise their peerless teamwork. He has also overseen a production design that, like everything else about Summer, 1976, is subtly luminous. John Lee Beatty's set frames the action in a kind of etched, neutral color surround that could be one of Diana's unfinished artworks; backlit by Japhy Weideman, it acquires new depths, revealing a tree in all its summer glory. (One of Weidman's best effects is a clarifying burst of sunshine when important choices must be made in the cold light of day.) It's a classic memory-play approach, amplified by Hana S. Kim's projections of greenery, fireworks, and a scrolling map of the United States. Linda Cho's costumes cleverly contrast the sleek, uncluttered lines of Diana's ensemble with Alice's aging-hippie ruffles. Sound designer Jill BC Du Boff provides snatches of Sousa and Shostakovich as needed, along with traffic noises on a New York street.

All thanks to Manhattan Theatre Club: It's a measure of the care with which Summer, 1976 has been written, produced, and performed that, days later, you may find yourself musing about Diana and Alice -- their impact on each other and the way small decisions can send lives veering in unexpected directions. Some friendships last a lifetime; others barely survive a season. But who's to say which is more important? --David Barbour

(3 May 2023)

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