Metro Weekly

‘Summer, 1976’ Review: Bicentennial Buddies

Long-term friendship, with all of its complexity and nuance, is explored in a quaint and quiet new Broadway play, 'Summer, 1976.'

Summer 1976 -- Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Summer 1976 — Photo: Jeremy Daniel

1976. Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford and became the 48th President of the United States. Sylvester Stallone punched his way to the top of box office glory with Rocky. New Yorkers were being terrorized by one of their own, serial killer David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”), and Washingtonians were treated to their first 4.6 miles of mass transit as the Metro Authority opened five stations on the red line.

Meanwhile playwright David Auburn had just turned 7. Either his precociousness served him well or he did a great deal of research to capture the zeitgeist of America’s bicentennial year in his poignant new play, Summer, 1976 (★★★☆☆).

Laura Linney, fresh on the heels of her long-running Netflix drama Ozark returns to Manhattan Theater Club where she’s previously received rave reviews for her work in Time Stands StillThe Little Foxes, and My Name is Lucy Barton. To have her back on the New York stage is well worth celebrating.

This time, she plays Diana, a somewhat uptight academic adjunct professor at Ohio State University. Diana has a feigned fondness for German expressionist painter Paul Klee and a snobbish disdain towards those she deems less cultured than herself. She also has a daughter, Gretchen, whom we only ever hear about but never see.

Gretchen’s father, we soon learn, was a fellow art student with Diana. “He dropped out of school the next semester. I’ve no idea where he wound up,” Diana says.

Gretchen is actually the impetus for Diana’s friendship with Alice (Jessica Hecht), a gentle but formidable soul whose husband Doug teaches at Ohio State. Their daughter, Holly, becomes fast friends with Gretchen and soon, the two mothers are spending considerable amounts of time with one another.

Ironically, not a lot happens over the course of 90 minutes — an unusual observation for any theatrical work which should hold a baseline for some drama. Admittedly, there was hesitance going into this. Would a simple two-hander of mere dialogue hold an audience firmly in its grasp? It’s a pleasure to report that in fact, it does.

Auburn’s script is packed with deeply human and reflective moments and delivered by a small but perfect cast that traverses the material with effortless flair. Director Daniel Sullivan ensures that there are no lags or dull moments. Rather, it feels as though we are silent guests in the homes of great friends who have wisdom and whimsy to impart to one another and to us.

Watching Summer, 1976, one might assume that Linney and Hecht have a history that runs the length and depth of their daughters’ friendship. Surprisingly, it’s the first time they’ve worked together on a project. One can only hope it won’t be the last.

In this case, Linney has the luxury of being a well-established celebrity, both on Broadway and through countless television and movie appearances. The marquee recognition is undoubtedly a draw at the box office. This creates a daunting challenge for Hecht, a lesser-known personality.

Hecht is a continuously working stage and television actor, having earned a Tony nomination for A View From the Bridge and starring as Golde in Broadway’s last revival of Fiddler on the Roof. She’s also garnered an Emmy nomination for the Netflix series Special. With credits like this, she holds her own against Linney.

Linney has the remarkable gift of turning every line and moment into something truly special, creating a completely watchable and relatable character in Diana. Her sarcasm and occasional prickly personality will no doubt resonate with metropolitan theatergoers.

Hecht infuses Alice with genuine warmth and kindness but is no pushover for her new friend. After Diana derides her choices of summer reading, Alice punches back, calling her a snob. “If I want to read crap during the summertime I’m going to do it,” she says. “You don’t have to educate me on that score.”

It’s hard in 2023 to imagine two individuals sitting poolside, reading actual books and conversing with one another. As Linney pointed out in a recent New York Times interview, “This was a time before cellphones, before the internet. Friendships were very deep. The effort that you would happily make to continue a relationship or a friendship!

Truly, our attention had to be focused on the people or situations that were in front us at any given moment. We had yet to be in a constant state of diversion and distraction by technology.

And we parented differently. “Now leave the Mommys alone, we’re talking. Go outside,” Diana tells Gretchen. Gone now are the days when we trusted kids to play on their own and to give the adults some much-needed conversation with their peers. Now, we think nothing of stopping the world, interrupting our adult friends, and lavishing full attention on every word our children utter.

No matter when you came of age, it will be hard not feel moved by this elegiac, beautiful memory play that Auburn has given us. You may find yourself going through your mental Rolodex of friends who have drifted away, and being grateful for the strong bonds you have forged with the current ones.

Summer, 1976 runs through June 18 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St. in New York. Tickets are $84 to $215. Call 212-239-6200 or visit

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