David Auburn’s Summer, 1976 is written in the form of a conversation between two women who at first have very little in common. But, when the two women conversing are played by Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht, this is a tête-à-tête that is worth overhearing.
A world premiere production of the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Summer, 1976 has been directed by Daniel Sullivan whose nuanced approach turns Auburn’s words into three-dimensional portraits. Under his guidance two brilliant artists slowly reveal layers of emotion, turning what might have been an unoriginal premise into a rich tapestry.
Auburn (Pulitzer Prize winner for Proof) has a knack for writing complex female characters. That knack hasn’t failed him in Summer, 1976. Diane, the lustrous Laura Linney, is an aloof artist/university professor who meets Alice, the warm and magnetic Jessica Hecht, a stay-at-home mom, via their very young daughters. Alice’s husband, the unseen, but occasionally heard, Doug, an economist on the tenure track at the university where Diane also teaches, devised a babysitting co-op that involved coupons exchanged for hours of babysitting, a system that eventually breaks down quite humorously.
Alice’s daughter Holly and Diane’s daughter Gretchen are playmates and fast friends, although Diane, who considers herself a intellectual, looks down on Alice particularly because she reads pop novels like Shogun and Coma and even admits, as the play begins, that she doesn’t particularly care for Holly. Diane is coming from the comfort of family money. She is a single mom, her child fathered by a fling with a glass sculptor.
Alice is more freewheeling, having given up her own career to tend to her husband, child and house, none of which she handles well.
Aside from their children and the babysitting co-op, the two share an interest in Merle, a college student whom Doug has hired to paint the house. The two have sensual fantasies about this young man all of which are blasted out of the water by circumstances quite out of their control.
The play follows the ups and downs of their ever deepening relationship through more than 25 years. Though they barely speak directly to each other, Auburn makes it clear what inspired their slow-moving friendship over a number of years: they each have gaps in their life that only the other can fill. Diane has built a wall of intellectual superiority around herself to shield her from the realities of her life. Unlike Diane, Alice doesn’t have a career and found herself lolling about her house and backyard fearing her husband’s attitudes. Their long dance about each other satisfies both of them in many ways.
Helping to define them are the costumes designed by Linda Cho: chic black for Diane and a colorful peasant skirt and blouse for Alice. John Lee Beatty’s deceptively simple set is enhanced by Hana S. Kim’s clever projections which wittily portray the cross-country jaunt the two take. Japhy Weideman’s lighting brilliantly directs focus on mood changes.
Summer, 1976 (through June 18, 2023)
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission