David Auburn Has Created a Showcase for Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht
Best known for ‘Proof,’ the Pulitzer Prize winner repeatedly flirts with and sometimes upends reductive clichés about women’s concerns, ambitions, and desires in his new play, ‘Summer, 1976.’
Diana, the character played by a predictably pitch-perfect Laura Linney in David Auburn’s new play, “Summer, 1976,” is a figure who will seem instantly familiar to anyone who moves in certain intellectually aspirational circles. An artist and single mother who teaches at Ohio State, Diana has seemingly never met a subject she can’t opine on at length, typically dropping a cultural reference or two in the process to affirm her authority.
Describing her first impression of Alice, the play’s only other character, with whom she will develop a brief but impactful friendship, Diana notes, “I could tell she didn’t like me, this sleepy-eyed little hippie with her shorts and her coconut oil and her sun-bleached paperback copy of James Clavell’s depressingly middlebrow novel ‘Shogun,’ which she was toting around proudly like it was ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’”
Diana adds, without a trace of irony, “There is no one more condescending and judgmental than a self-imagined ‘free spirit’ smugly encountering a ‘square.’”
Yet as Alice, played by the equally reliable Jessica Hecht, notes a short while later, while admitting her own initial misgivings about Diana, “People aren’t just one thing.” As if to illustrate this, Mr. Auburn, best known for “Proof,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a mathematician’s brilliant but troubled daughter, repeatedly flirts with and sometimes upends reductive clichés about women’s concerns, ambitions, and desires over the course of this one-act play.
The actresses spend much of their time seated at opposite ends of the long table that dominates John Lee Beatty’s minimalist set, emphasizing the distance between Alice and Diana, which will be both figurative and literal at various points. Both characters address the audience as much as each other in recalling the titular period, decades ago, when they met through their young children.
When Alice’s husband, an economics professor at the university — Ms. Linney plays him, with hilarious brusqueness, in segments where Alice asks Diana to do so — conceives a babysitting co-op for his colleagues, the characters’ daughters, Holly and Gretchen, become fast friends. It’s only after getting stoned together that their mothers discover that they too have similar, or at least compatible, interests.
Diana learns, much to her surprise, that Alice attended graduate school, while Alice unearths information about her new buddy — some of it divulged willingly by Diana, some acknowledged with greater reluctance — that contradicts her vision of a successful and self-satisfied control freak. There’s a series of twists, none of them terribly provocative; near the end, Mr. Auburn dangles a happy ending worthy of a Hallmark TV movie, then wittily withdraws it, but without avoiding sentimentality altogether.
Under the elegant direction of Daniel Sullivan, who collaborated with Mr. Auburn on “Proof” and his subsequent play “The Columnist,” “Summer, 1976” works best as a vehicle for its always compelling and well-matched stars. Alice may not have the kind of sumptuously pretentious mini-monologues that Ms. Linney gets to dig into, but like many of Ms. Hecht’s characters, she has her own quirky spirit, and an intelligence that burns under her deceptive ethereality.
In fact, if this accessible and often charming play won’t earn Mr. Auburn another Pulitzer, I can easily picture it enduring as a showcase for any number of gifted actresses. I expect both of his heroines, however different, would be pleased by that prospect.