In ‘Summer, 1976’ Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht make—and break—a friendship
The Daily Beast
April 25, 2023
Though “Summer, 1976” has none of the explosive moments of some of its Broadway compadres, this play about female friendship has a gently moving power.
That famous event of Summer, 1976—America’s bicentennial—is a rumbling but not significant backdrop to David Auburn’s gently affecting play of the same name about the undulating terrain of a friendship. We hear fireworks in the distance, and celebratory events are attended by its lead and only characters, Diana and Alice, played with an engaging immediacy and intimacy by Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht.
Late in the play, in a sequence where this Manhattan Theatre Club production (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, booking to June 10) takes what turns out to be deceptive flight, the vast swathe of America itself becomes the canvas of the play, far from the setting of Columbus, Ohio where the women live. A whole country of possibilities opens up, then closes down—rather like the central, tantalizing relationship between the women.
First, as they sit at a table center stage, we sense opposites attracting and repelling. The thing that brings together these two very different women are their kids. Dressed in black with primly straight blonde hair, Linney plays the efficient and meticulous Diana, initially sniffily judgmental about the messy home, messy child (Holly, always with a runny nose), and hippyish bearing of Hecht’s Alice, dressed in her flowing print dress.
Both Linney and Hecht have done similar solo or small-scale plays on the New York stage in recent times—Linney in My Name Is Lucy Barton, which opened just before the pandemic, and Hecht just two months ago in the exquisite off-Broadway play Letters From Max, in which she gazed just as impassively and mischievously upon the audience as she does in Summer, 1976.
The initial bursts of humor in Summer, 1976 comes from two very clearly different women conveying their withering dismissiveness of the other—Diana is horrified that Alice is immersed in the bestselling novels of the time, like Shogun, “which she was toting around proudly like it was The Brothers Karamazov.” This barbed sniping session they impart to us; we are the confession booth where “square” meets “free spirit,” as Diana describes them.
This structure means we hear what the women say to each other, and what they do not say to each other. This becomes more critical as the play progresses, and various secrets and silent deceptions reveal themselves. Just what does Diana really do? Is she really the fancy art teacher on the verge of an artistically expressive breakthrough with her own work, or—as she feels inside—a failure?
Alice is bored, happy to laze beside her pool while Merle, a student of her husband Doug, hangs around their place fixing stuff, and yet also frequently disappears into the house. Could he be masturbating about her, Diana wonders, as she lies next to her pool, lost in her own, wittily staged sexual reverie about Merle?
Don’t let the dress and ethereal air fool you; Alice is just as spiky as Diana, noting when the latter keeps taking puffs of a joint: “I only took it out because it was the only way I could imagine getting through the next ten minutes before I could make an excuse and leave.” Alice tells Diana she is a snob over the Shogun thing. “Now can you please shut the fuck up and let me finish reading Coma in peace because there’s a James Michener book about Hawaii I’m dying to get to next.”
Linney and Hecht express just as much with smiles and gestures as they do with words. For most of the play they sit at the table, occasionally exiting to signify a new location or shift in time. John Lee Beatty’s simple design combines with Japhy Weideman’s lighting and Hana S. Kim’s projections to provide us with vistas beyond the mysteriously patterned walls that include a twinkling night of fireflies, and later an art gallery.
Alice sees Diana’s orderly house and life, and contrasts it with the racy story of the unknown glass blower who impregnated her new friend, recognizing people can be more than one thing; Diana is way more judgey, contrasting Alice’s shambolic domestic set-up with her also being the most conventional of stay-at-home housewives.
Despite their differences, or maybe because of them, the women become closer—not in a syrupy way, but gently, and with an appreciation of their different lives and their echoing frustrations. The moment which cements their friendship comes when Alice takes care of Diana when the latter suffers from a debilitating migraine.
When the play’s central crisis comes it is not, as Alice expects, about her husband’s fury that she has been messing with a certificate system of informal childcare he has set up, but something far more unexpected and marriage-torpedoing. Diana is there for her. Here we realize how deep the tendrils of this tentative friendship have grown. But one of the puzzles of the play is what is not said. The women never tell each other what they mean to each other. We know because they tell us. We see the love at the heart of any true friendship; how they admit privately the other is right, and how they wish they could tell each other something when they cannot.
What we eventually see is how some friendships do not shatter with arguments and walkouts, but dissolve and implode over time, exacerbated by physical distance and a lack of care and attention.
A subtly piercing final scene brings the two women together again, many years later, to show us how far apart they have grown and yet how instinctually close they remain. But again, as throughout Summer, 1976 what Diana and Alice don’t say to each other, and what they tell us, is key. They meet in public, while their private worlds remain under concealing lock and key.
Linney and Hecht are excellent and generous scene partners, and though Summer, 1976 has none of the explosive bells and whistles of some of its Broadway compadres, it has its own gentle, unassuming power. We see the flipsides to Diana’s apparent control and superiority, and the steelier side of Alice. We yearn for them to hit the road together, to build a new life with their daughters away from this stultifying place. And at first it seems they may do just that. And then… well, life.
The most implausible thing in the play is how little the women talk about so many key things. Just what does friendship mean to them, when they seem so unwilling to share so much? Perhaps it’s not surprising their friendship goes awry—these two supposed close friends leave much unsaid between one another. Their shared love/tenderness is obvious, but their investment in their bond seems glancing.
But perhaps what Linney, Hecht, Auburn, and Sullivan aim to show in Summer, 1976 is how the gnarlier connective tissue and contours of friendships form, and ultimately can be left to wither. There is a funny, very New York closing moment involving an uncomfortable hailing of a cab, which echoes their missed connections. But even then when all seems lost, Linney and Hecht show us, what remains—sadly unsaid between Diana and Alice—is love.