I have been watching the families of Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck for the past few years at The Public Theater. I saw two-thirds of the Gabriels series; What Did You Expect? and Women of a Certain Age, and I was introduced to The Michaels last year. They carry a number of similarities, these four. They register as natural and organic, stewed together in a kitchen surrounded by almost two many tables and chairs for a Manhattanite to understand. I watched them discuss politics and art, and although I never did bear witness to The Apple Family trilogy and I don’t know any of the particulars, I can make a number of predictions how they speak to one another and how the framework of interpersonal dynamics might play out. The plays also carry with them an immediacy that feels ultimately relevant, but progressively authentic in their solid but breakable bones. So it was with some comfort that I joined them the other night for a Zoom chat, and even though the play’s structure was like no other that I have had as of late, I still felt the simplicity of watching them, positioned like a fly on their kitchen wall, taking in their familial chatter as easy as breathing in the aroma of a stew that I liked, but never really craved with all my heart.
It’s quite the strong set-up, even though I didn’t know the characters’ backstory nor their relationships. The Apple Family, the one I didn’t see or know much about, have reunited under the self-isolating conditions we are all experiencing. They aren’t all gathered in a homey kitchen chatting with one another while someone made dinner. They are gathered, just like most of us, around a computer screen or a laptop, Zoom chatting in little rectangles from the privacy of their own room. Streaming out to us all last Wednesday, Nelson’s new one-hour play, What Do We Need to Talk About?, available on The Public Theater’s YouTube channel until May 3rd, is as clear a vision as possible, grasping precisely what we are all struggling to cope with and understand about ourselves during these tumultuous times. We gather and talk, sometimes with complete engagement, or sometimes, like these characters, we disconnect and wander away, sometimes to get food or drink as if they are all gathered for a dinner, or sometimes just mentally, spacing out and not being fully present to what is happening. (top left, clockwise) Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, Stephen Kunken. Photo courtesy of The Public Theater.
The cast of Nelson’s play as directed by Nelson, is all of the acting clan you would suspect to see within one of his plays at The Public. Jay O. Sanders (Sir David Hare’s Stuff Happens), the most well known to me, is there in all his effortless glory as Richard, a lawyer for the state of New York, who has moved back in with his high school history teacher sister Barbara, played organically by the marvelous Maryann Plunkett (1987 Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…). [side note: these two fine actors are married in real life, so isolating together in real life as well as in this play makes complete sense.] It turns out she has just been released from the hospital after surviving a frighteningly severe case of COVID-19. It’s a fear and a structure of relief that we can all easily relate to, directly or indirectly, but it adds a layer of immediate authenticity to the proceedings, and a tension within that we are all grappling with in some way shape or form. Another sister, the elementary-school teacher Marian, smartly portrayed by Laila Robins (RTC’s Heartbreak House) sits strong and clear, even though she is still grieving the death of her daughter. Writer and sister Jane, dynamically played by Sally Murphy (LCT’s Admissions) chimes in from one room, while her live-in boyfriend, Tim, well played by Stephen Kunken (Broadway’s Enron), who is an actor and a restaurant manager for a restaurant that has just COVID closed down, zooms in from another room. He has tested positive for the virus and has quarantined himself in the other room, although he is symptom-free. It’s a tense arrangement that they try to pass off as completely fine, but the edge is sharp, and the banter tinged with bored frustration.
In many ways, there’s nothing remarkably dramatic about the Apples and the way they talk to one another. It’s almost boring to sit through, but we know from Nelson’s way of capturing the mildness of these kind-hearted people, that the tasty nuggets will be there, hidden inside the crust, just waiting to jump out and surprise. They bicker in ways that only a somewhat secure family can, stating obvious yet complicated dynamics with ease, and moving past conflicts naturally and without too much notice. “You always said you were worried about being smothered by your sisters,” one sister says quite matter-of-factly, to which Richard feels he must defend against with a denial, “I never said that.” But that won’t sit with his sisters who insist, almost casually, “You definitely did” with Barbara digging it in deeper by stating, quite quietly in the background, “In this very house.”(top left, clockwise) Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, Stephen Kunken. Photo courtesy of The Public Theater.
Most times, like us and our Zoom gatherings, the characters from Nelson’s AppleFamily, talk about the simple and the banal; the food they are making and eating, grocery shopping obstacles, senior hours for shopping, and how they all are trying to stay safe against the obstacles set out before them. But in this particular family Zoom gathering, the liberal-leaning dynamics of three sisters and one brother, with a boyfriend thrown in for good measure, are introduced, most elegantly, to a compelling idea that transforms the chatter. Barbara shares an idea and a slice of history that is, in its core, most compelling. She recalls that in the 14th-century during the Black Death pandemic the classic “The Decameron” was composed to distract one another while in quarantine. “The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city” (Wikipedia). From that historic connection to a tragic past, the Apples curate and share stories like a good meal baked in history and intellectualsim, in a talky minimalistic manner that registers with anyone who has seen one of the many Nelson plays. It’s charming, thoughtful, emotionally relevant, and comforting, particularly at a time when we are in need of just that kind of a good warm meal.
This is a new type of theatre, even if What Do We Need to Talk About? feels as comfortable as a warm kitchen. They talk and discuss all the issues that rattle around our own hearts and souls, like the death of Broadway actor Mark Blum and the disconcerting future of theater. The piece feels transformational and traditional all at once. Invite yourself over to the Apples, and pull up a virtual chair for a separate but compellingly attached meal and a glass of wine. It won’t blow your mind, and you might even get a bit bored at times like I did, but who doesn’t when we have these kinds of conversations via group Zoom chats, with family and loved ones. It’s hard not to see the realness in every frame, so while The Publicand all the other theaters remain closed, let’s embrace what we are served, especially when it is a well-crafted bowl of comfort and connection. Dig in and digest. You’ll feel warm and well feed when done, and these inspiring attempts to engage and challenge us theatrically will tide us over until the time when the real life theatrical doors open up wide once again.
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