theater review

Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht Find Depth in the Small Scale of Summer, 1976

Jessica Hecht and Laura Linney in Summer, 1976.
Jessica Hecht and Laura Linney in Summer, 1976. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The key pleasure of Summer, 1976 comes from listening to Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht talk. The two of them — how haven’t they worked alongside each other before? — have distinct instruments and know how to deploy them so well. Linney’s got an assertive alto, while Hecht’s timbre is reedier and more winding, a viola and oboe. I’d happily see them take on any number of double-act parts (Hecht’s Glinda to Linney’s Elphaba?), but in David Auburn’s gentle but wise play, they’ve found a piece of finely wrought chamber music on which they can duet with precision.

The scale of this production is kept purposefully small, a painting in miniature: Auburn introduces us to Diana (Linney) and Alice (Hecht) as they trade monologues, both looking back from around 2003 or so on a summer in Columbus, Ohio, where they became friends as young mothers. Diana is wealthier and more uptight, a single-mother art professor with a studio she refuses to let the kids play in, while Alice is a “sleepy-eyed little hippie” (according to Diana) and a bit of a stoner who’s married to a young economist at Ohio State. Auburn sets up an oil-and-water dynamic, as circumstances — needing each other to babysit — emulsify them together. Their daughters become friends right away, but they bond more slowly. Diana turns out to be more sexually liberated, happily encouraging Alice to pursue a flirtation with the grad student who is painting her house, while Alice reveals herself to be more trepidatious. They’re not shocking things to learn about another person, but they register deeply, because the writing is at eye level with its characters. Auburn hands Hecht a line that she, as one of our best tosser-offers of asides, lands with grace: “I mean, this is obvious now, but it seemed like a big revelation at the time, I was young — that people aren’t just one thing.” That’s a no, duh that, treated with such consideration, is also so true.

The spell that Summer, 1976 casts depends on Linney and Hecht’s tuning the audience to the play’s quietly rueful frequency. I could imagine things not jelling if you’re not in the right mind-set to receive it, but their performances locked me in. Linney is predictably good in a part that plays toward a type she favors, a put-together woman fraying on the edges. She’s made regular appearances at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre over the last decade giving this type of performance (to varying degrees of success). Here, she draws out the humor, as well as Diana’s libido, which undercuts her certainty. She’s someone with all the firm assertions of youth, bound to be proven wrong in due time, a lovable snob who, in a fun bit of period detail, can’t stand that Alice is reading something as middlebrow as Shōgun. Hecht may be less of a name (I’m sorry for you if you didn’t cackle with glee when she showed up briefly on Succession), but Alice turns out to be the richer role. She initially seems to be a space cadet, often looking for a chance to light up a joint and tune out Diana, but we soon learn that getting married so young stunted her own academic career (she’s read all sorts of serious novels, but just prefers beach reads) and left her aimless. Linney steps in to play Alice’s husband, donning the oblivious growl of a self-serious professor, in scenes where the two of them talk about their marriage, allowing you to see into a dynamic that has clearly stopped working. As Alice, Hecht is always shrugging, but communicating a lot with those gestures — both mugging toward the audience as if to say, “Isn’t this bullshit?” and trying to convince herself of her own resignation. She’s placidly easy-breezy, you realize, as a defense mechanism.

Those scenes between Alice and her husband also let Hecht and Linney ping-pong off each other, which they don’t get to do enough while monologuing separately. Daniel Sullivan, directing, situates them on either side of a table as they trade speeches, which early on lulls you into a rhythm that’s a bit too predictable. Things are more lively whenever one of the women interrupts or contradicts the other’s monologue, or when they slip into a scene as they describe it, as they do on a trip to a furniture warehouse where Diana buys Alice a desk. (Yes, this is the sort of play where buying a desk is a crucial plot development.) We know, early on, that the two of them have grown apart, but Auburn wisely resists ratcheting things up into a higher and less naturalistic tenor of drama. A reveal that’s not entirely unexpected comes near the end, alongside a jump into the present, and the play strains when it gets bigger and woozier. We’re treated, briefly, to a swell of twinkling music (by Greg Pliska) and some projections over John Lee Beatty’s a-little-too-garish-1970s set. But it never goes off course. Auburn brings the action back around to the small and yet big matter of having and then losing a friendship.

The scale of Summer, 1976 makes it easy to dismiss. I’d joked to a friend that it’s almost like Linney and Hecht have decided to do a play in their backyard, not realizing that a bunch of Manhattan Theatre Club subscribers are watching. I wonder if the play would be a better fit in a smaller house — it’s being recorded as an audiobook, too, and will probably excel when Linney and Hecht are so close to your ears — but in the midst of a run of spring openings averse to subtlety, watching something as specific as this on Broadway was a relief. (Even something centered on a great performance like Prima Facie is amped up to 11.) Everything need not be some big occasion. It’s enough that Diana and Alice both seem like real people with dense and fully realized histories, and that they are played with such care by such thoughtful actors. They don’t experience anything grandly triumphant or devastating, but the play offers the challenge of sitting quietly, meeting them at their level, and considering what is big from that vantage.

Summer, 1976 is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Linney and Hecht Find Depth at Small Scale in Summer, 1976