David Auburn's Summer, 1976 on Broadway
Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht
By: Karen Isaacs - May 23, 2023
Friendships ebb and flow. People come together forming close bonds; later those bonds weaken and what was a daily interaction become less frequent. Often it devolves into an annual lunch, email, “like” on Facebook or a holiday card. Over time even these may disappear. Yet some go on for decades or pick up where they left off when there is an interlude of limited contact.
The story of Diana and Alice fits the first pattern.
The new play by David Auburn, Summer, 1976 now at the Manhattan Theatre Company illustrates the truths about friendship.
Diana (Laura Linney) and Alice (Jessica Hecht) are mothers of 5-year-old daughters; it is summer in Columbus, Ohio and both are connected to The Ohio State University. They meet through a babysitting co-op set up by Alice’s husband, an economics professor striving for tenure. The two daughters hit it off, and so during the summer, the two mothers spend much time together.
They seem to have little in common except their daughters. Diana is chic and well put together, an artist with a moneyed background. Alice is a stay-at-home mom who likes to read popular novels; she still retains her “hippie” looks and attitudes, offering Diana marijuana.
Yet underneath it, they are very similar. Neither is quite what they seem to be. Diana is only an adjunct. teaching non-credit classes; she never can finish a painting. Alice’s marriage isn’t the best; she isn’t the “dumb” housewife – she has a master’s degree in literature. Each needs to escape, Alice from her marriage and Diana from her unfulfilled life.
What really makes this play interesting are the performances by Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht. Each has established careers built on different personas. Linney often plays characters that are cool, in control, and upscale. Hecht often plays characters that are more disorganized both emotionally and physically.
As the two alternate in telling the story of their friendship, you can’t help but think of Alice as a Lily Tomlin character, perhaps the character Tomlin played in Grace & Frankie. You can wonder if Auburn subconsciously drew on those two characters.
It’s a memory play, which means that many scenes aren’t acted out; each tells us part of the story. It is the skill of these two that they can for the most part keep it interesting. Twice in the narrative, we have unexpected flights of “what if” or of “what I’d like it to be” that seem more interesting than the arc of the story.
In reality, the story of the friendship is predictable and not always engaging. Added to that, the narrating of their story rather than showing it to us, is not particularly dramatic.
What is engaging are the two performances. Each creates the character and allows us to be drawn by each woman and her issues.
Daniel Sullivan has directed this with a fine hand; he manages to gloss over some of the flaws of the piece including its lack of a real point. He helps these two fine performers to create believable and sympathetic women.
A highlight is the scenic design by John Lee Beatty. His set is both flexible and memorable. The last scene – when the two women meet years later at the Metropolitan Museum is stunning. The lighting design by Japhy Weideman is an essential component of the design.
Summer, 1976 is at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W 47th Street, through Sunday, June 18.