Holly and Gretchen. Those are the little girls’ names, so dissimilar in the way they hit the ear: one soft, warm and breathy; the other sharp-edged and cramped. Just like their mothers.
The children are 5, maybe 6, when they first play together and hit it off, instant pals suddenly eager to see each other every day. In “Summer, 1976” — David Auburn’s bittersweet, comic memory play — that means their mothers, diametric opposites, will be hanging out a lot, too.
This is a fortunate thing for us, the audience. Because in Daniel Sullivan’s sun-dappled Broadway production for Manhattan Theater Club, Laura Linney plays the austere, censorious Diana to Jessica Hecht’s vastly chiller Alice — or, as Diana describes this fresh acquaintance, a “sleepy-eyed little hippie with her shorts and her coconut oil.”
“I sort of immediately hated her,” Alice tells us in narrator mode, which she and Diana slip in and out of as they recall the time when they were new to each other.
But when Alice reaches into her macramé purse and retrieves a joint (“I only took it out because it was the only way I could imagine getting through the next 10 minutes,” she says), Diana tokes prodigiously to prove she’s not a square. On John Lee Beatty’s lyrically midcentury modern set, summer-lit by Japhy Weideman at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, the two women get the munchies and have a feast. Nearly by chance, a life-changing friendship takes root.
They are a gorgeous duo, these friends: bickering lifelines for each other, vulnerable and too proud. In one narrated stretch, with Hana S. Kim’s projection design aiding our imaginations, Diana and Alice embark on a cross-country road trip, terminating in San Francisco — which seems ideal, not least because it brings to mind Linney’s ’70s heroine Mary Ann Singleton in the mini-series “Tales of the City.”
Auburn, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner for “Proof,” another richly female-centered drama directed by Sullivan in its premiere, isn’t breaking any ground with theatrical form here. And the white, college-educated, Midwestern young women at the center of this play are a very particular slice of the culture. Stretching from 1976 to 2003, this is a story of profound connection and awakening disquiet, which Sullivan directs with his customary unostentatious lucidity.
If “Summer, 1976” feels too comfortable to be fashionable, it’s sharply observant, too, and subtly, insistently feminist — more than the wisp of a two-hander that it might first appear to be. Auburn, who at 53 was about Holly and Gretchen’s age during the Bicentennial, has once again sown a script with riches for actors. Linney and Hecht mine them for all they’re worth.
A frustrated artist who teaches at Ohio State University, Diana is a single mother — the kind with family money as a cushion and a rule against Gretchen watching any TV shows that aren’t on PBS. An inveterate snob who judges the worth of her fellow humans by their design choices and the books they read, Diana is harder to like than Alice is — though in Linney’s hands, no less funny or affecting. The second line out of her mouth gets a laugh with its withering disdain for Alice’s daughter.
“I didn’t like her child, actually,” Diana says.
Diana’s off-puttingness is partially strategic; it keeps her safe from the harm that other people might cause by getting close. But her brittle-perfectionist facade conceals a deep well of insecurity and loneliness, and a reserve of compassion that’s more capacious than we’d guess.
Alice, in her flowing peasant dress (costumes are by Linda Cho), is the kind of fluttery, gentle-voiced woman who is routinely underestimated. She’s smarter and more resilient than she lets on, though, and, like Hecht’s terrific performance, admirably sly. A stay-at-home mother with almost zero interest in cooking, cleaning or decorating, Alice is married to Doug, an economist who’s up for tenure at the university and spends the summer buried frantically in his papers. Invested in believing that she’s happy, and that her marriage is, too, Alice looks after Holly, sunbathes in the yard of their modest house and indulges in best-selling paperbacks.
One of those novels, Robin Cook’s “Coma,” not published until 1977, is a slight, seemingly calculated cheat on Auburn’s part in a show that’s otherwise meticulous about period accuracy. (See, for glorious example, Diana’s impeccably turquoise-shadowed eyelids — as well as her hair, styled by Annemarie Bradley, and Alice’s, styled by Jasmine Burnside.)
A medical thriller, “Coma” is also about a woman who enters an overwhelmingly male professional world and faces sexist pushback. Not that the play gets into this; it’s just a signal that’s there for picking up.
But both Alice and Diana, who meet through a campus child care co-op designed by Doug as an economic model, have seen their creative and career ambitions derailed. They belong to a generation of women who came of age in time for the sexual revolution and took advantage of that freedom pre-Roe v. Wade. Still, there remained the practical matter of how pregnancy could permanently rearrange their lives, and the entrenched expectation that a married woman puts her husband’s career first.
Diana got pregnant in art school during a fling with a glassblower; Alice dropped out of graduate school to marry Doug, then had Holly. Columbus — a staid heartland city named for that avatar of heedless white male adventuring — was never the aim for either of them.
“Great things were promised me, Alice,” Diana says. “I promised them to myself.”
In that red, white and blue summer, they question what’s gone wrong with their American dreams. And they start, with poignant imperfection, to put things right.
Through June 10 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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