Reviews

Summer, 1976 *****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 27, 2023: Summer, 1976, the new, two-character play by Pulitzer-winner David Auburn (Proof) at the Manhattan Theatre Club, brings together a constellation of MTC stalwarts with stars Laura Linney (her fourth MTC show), Jessica Hecht (The Assembled Parties, director Daniel Sullivan, designers John Lee Beatty (set) and Japhy Weideman (lighting), and others. The play is a sweet time-passer of no particular theatrical importance, delightfully acted, directed, and designed, with moments of laughter and pathos coated in a light glaze of nostalgia.

Laura Linney & Jessica Hecht.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 27, 2023: Summer, 1976, the new, two-character play by Pulitzer-winner David Auburn (Proof) at the Manhattan Theatre Club, brings together a constellation of MTC stalwarts with stars Laura Linney (her fourth MTC show), Jessica Hecht (The Assembled Parties), director Daniel Sullivan, designers John Lee Beatty (set) and Japhy Weideman (lighting), and others. The play is a sweet time-passer of no particular theatrical importance, delightfully acted, directed, and designed, with moments of laughter and pathos coated in a light glaze of nostalgia.   

While there’s nothing especially memorable in its depiction of a friendship between two women, growing from a cynical beginning to warmth and intimacy, and then, as has happened to all of us, dissipating over time, it accumulates whatever interest it contains by means of the writing device used to tell its story, and the acting employed to present it.

 Laura Linney & Jessica Hecht.

The characters, Diana (Ms. Linney) and Alice (Ms. Hecht), sit at either side of a large table in front of a neutral background of three translucent walls composed of squares containing differing geometric patterns. The lighting, whose frequent cues can sometimes be a bit too obvious, occasionally allows us to view dense vegetation upstage. Diana is an artist-teacher at the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, and Alice is a homemaker who attended a year of grad school (studying literature) before giving it up to raise a family with her OSU economics professor husband, struggling to get tenure. They meet in 1976 as part of a child care co-operative for budget-conscious faculty families, where their kindergarten-age kids are enrolled; the co-op, organized by Alice’s husband, runs on an experimental plan he devised using “shares,” the misuse of which will form one of the play’s chief incidents. 

Diana seems to embody everything-in-its-place perfection, from her trim figure, silhouetted in a tight black top and slacks, exquisitely cut blond tresses, and ideal home décor. Alice, her brunette locks flowing casually, her dress a long, floral frock worn over high boots, exudes a hippy vibe, down to her weed-smoking and carelessly overlooked housekeeping duties. As they say, you can’t tell a book by its cover, and we gradually learn that there is more to these women, some of it happy, some not, than we first assume. An extended sequence showing Diana suffering a severe migraine is among the less happy memories.

 Laura Linney & Jessica Hecht.

The tale of Alice and Diana’s relationship is told largely via direct address, each character speaking to us in turn about past events, but occasionally re-enacting situations by having dialogues in which Diana plays the part of Alice’s husband, and so forth. When one character is narrating, the other listens and often nods in agreement. No rationale, though, is ever given for the device, which can appear only one step removed from the staged reading of a short novel.

Movement is minimal until a late scene set in 2003 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where, the women having lost touch for years, accidentally reunite, and help fill in the gap between then and now, not all of it pleasant. If this hadn’t happened as depicted, one imagines, Alice and Diana would likely have found each other several years later when social media began bringing old friends together, something that most of us have now experienced time and again.

Jessica Hecht & Laura Linney.

Mr. Auburn’s writing is always natural sounding and listenable, offering Mses. Linney and Hecht ample opportunities to display their thespian wares. Ms. Linney remains a commandingly striking woman, her charisma tied to intense intelligence, wit, emotional power, and vocal excellence. She’s the very embodiment of Diana’s minute perfectionism, making it that much more poignant when the character’s weaknesses are exposed. A minor distraction: Ms. Linney pronounces the words “ogle” and “ogling” as if the “o” were “ah.” I have always thought the “o” should be pronounced “oh,” with which all the online pronunciation guides, like this one, concur. I myself could never resist “ohgling” Ms. Linney; I promise never to “ahgle” her, though.

Ms. Hecht uses her unique, offbeat speech rhythms, and her tendency to give her words slightly quirky pronunciations and emphases, to capture the more eccentric aspects of Alice’s colorful personality; her precise timing often makes her throwaway lines her funniest. 

Mr. Auburn may not have written the next great American play, but what he and his talented collaborators have provided is definitely worth the 90 minutes it takes to engage with it. At the very least, the sheer pleasure of reuniting with old friends Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht is not to be denied.

Summer, 1976
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th Street, NYC
Through June 10
Photography: Jeremy Daniel

Jessica Hecht & Laura Linney.