Manhattan Theatre Club concocted a winning formula for its final Broadway offering of the season—or so it appeared on paper. What happens when you combine two beloved theatre performers, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, and a revered director for a world-premiere production? In the case of Summer, 1976, you end up with something far less than the sum of its considerable parts.
David Auburn’s script falls into the most annoying traps of contemporary playwrighting. Characters narrate their experiences rather than living them. Although two people are on stage for the duration of the 90-minute running time, they speak more often to the audience than each other. Whenever Auburn runs into storytelling stumbling blocks, he turns to the laziest form of expository writing; his characters say things like “The next thing I’m going to tell you” or “In case you had forgotten.” The effect ultimately feels like someone is reading a short story to you—I scanned my playbill genuinely to see if Audible was a co-producer.
Throughout, Auburn also trades in eye-rolling contrasts of highbrow and lowbrow culture, telegraphed by fleeting references to genuine artists (Paul Klee, the Emerson String Quartet) and popular culture pretenders (Charlie’s Angels, Robin Cook). This makes a certain sense when you consider that the show is set on a college campus, where appearing connected and relevant is everything, though it often seems like name-dropping for an audience that will recognize these cultural signifiers. At its worst, I wondered if an AI chatbot programmed to write a middlebrow contemporary drama would come up with anything less facile.
All the talent onstage, and all the irritations of the script, are in service of a rather thin story. The action, such as it is, follows Diana (Laura Linney) and Alice (Jessica Hecht) as they bond over the months of the title summer. Everything about them is a predictable contrast: Diana teaches art at Ohio State, while Alice is a faculty wife; Alice is as free-spirited as Diana is stern and serious. Even Linda Cho’s costumes make the divide of their personalities clear, with Alice flitting around in a hippy-dippy sundress and Diana cutting an imposing figure in a black pantsuit.
Naturally, they become fast friends, despite having nothing in common except daughters who are roughly the same age. Again, Auburn doesn’t show us the bloom of friendship—he tells us how the two strangers deepened their bonds and leaves Linney and Hecht to fill in the blanks. They largely do, although Linney takes the coldness of her character a bit too much to heart: even when we’re meant to see the behind her grim façade, her performance remains somewhat impenetrable. I don’t blame her—she hasn’t much to work with—but I’m fairly confident this outing won’t enter the pantheon of her impressive body of stage work.
Hecht fares better generally, projecting Alice’s warm nature and budding confidence, although she once again adopts a strange accent to complement her performance that becomes distracting over time. In an attempt to sound Midwestern, I think, she hangs umlauts over her O’s and draws out her other vowels to their breaking points. Sometimes she sounds stoned, and sometimes she sounds like Sling Blade. I’m old enough to remember when Hecht used her own voice onstage, and I’d like to go back to those times.
The material occasionally catches fire when Diana and Alice talk to each other, or when Linney and Hecht take on the voice of another, unseen character: Alice’s husband, consumed by his preparations for tenure, or Diana’s daughter, full of inquisitive questions. But these moments are weirdly announced and eventually dropped in favor of the familiar narrative structure. The overarching structure of the play creates a static experience that isn’t helped by Daniel Sullivan’s inert direction, which leaves his two actors largely motionless at the wooden conference table that constitutes the majority of John Lee Beatty’s set.
Auburn is a skilled writer, as evidenced by Proof and the underrated Lost Lake. And Summer, 1976 could certainly find something interesting to say about female friendship, bonds of necessity, and cultural currency. But at present, it feels like a star vehicle hastily slapped together, promising much and delivering little. Like the fireworks that Diana professes to love in one scene, it crackles briefly but ultimately fades.