Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 25, 2023
Cast: Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht.
Theater: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
The two actresses are Laura Linney (magnificent!) and Jessica Hecht (ditto!). Because both of them use every ounce of their acting prowess to create their characterizations, it is quite easy to get swept up in their truly splendid performances for a long time before it occurs to you that their characters never actually interact. Instead, the details pour out in alternating monologs for the whole of the 90-minute production. It is all memories, random thoughts, fantasies, imagined conversations, and moments of wishful thinking that frustratingly and too often lead us up blind alleys.
Based on the times when their stories intersect, this much would seem to be accurate. Diana (Linney) and Alice (Hecht) meet through their children, Diana's daughter Gretchen and Alice's daughter Holly. The girls have quickly latched on to one another, which means there is lots of time for their moms to connect. Still, five-year-olds are rather more open and are able to make friends with greater ease than adults. It takes more than proximity for the women to move past superficial politeness.
To Diana, Alice is a "sleepy-eyed little hippie, condescending and judgmental." To Alice, Diana is a pretentious art professor at Ohio State, where Alice's husband Doug is working toward tenure as a business professor. One of Doug's projects has been to set up a babysitting cooperative among some of the faculty, which is how Alice and Diana initially meet.
The two women would seem to have little in common, but in short order, they find they actually enjoy one another's company. The weed that Alice buys from one of Doug's students and shares with Diana helps oil the way, and the deal is sealed through two acts of open-hearted generosity. The first occurs when Alice nurses Diana through a debilitating migraine attack; the second happens when Diana takes Alice and Holly into her home overnight after a falling-out between Alice and Doug. Beyond that, I think I will leave it to Diana and Alice to share their individual versions of the ebb and flow of their friendship.
Unfortunately, and despite the fact that both Linney and Hecht, under Dan Sullivan's direction, pour themselves into their performances, Summer, 1976 comes off as a literary exercise, an enacted short story about a series of situational connections with others that happen to most of us most of the time. As Stephen Sondheim would point out five years after Summer, 1976 takes place, in the musical Merrily We Roll Along: "Most friends fade/Or they don't make the grade/New ones are quickly made/And in a pinch, sure, they'll do." It's not making friends that matters so much as how to keep friendships going through thick and thin for a lifetime. Now that would be a play I'd want to see.