Monday, October 17, 2011

Hanging Out with the Apple Family

Sweet and Sad at the Public Theater in New York City/Photo by Joan Marcus

Sweet and Sad is the second in a series of plays written and directed by Richard Nelson that sets a family living in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley against the political backdrop of contemporary America – specifically the Democratic north east. That Hopey Changey Thing brought together the Apples Richard, a Manhattan lawyer; his sisters Barbara, Marian and Jane; their uncle Benjamin, who lives with the unmarried Barbara; and Jane’s actor boy friend Tim Andrews at Barbara’s house in upstate Rhinebeck during the 2010 mid-term elections. Sweet and Sad takes place on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and ends with the same group leaving Barbara’s to attend a local memorial concert at which Benjamin, who is also an actor but who has been suffering from amnesia following a heart attack, will be reading Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “The Wound-Dresser.” These are intimate, small-scale pieces that attempt to accomplish something that seems to be increasingly difficult in the American theatre:  to depict three-dimensional characters responding to the political realities of present-day life without preaching or striking attitudes, using their relationships as a dramatic structure for reflecting their feelings.

Playwright Richard Nelson
In That Hopey Changey Thing Nelson, a thoughtful, intelligent playwright whose plays, even the best ones (Goodnight Children Everywhere, Rodney’s Wife, the musicals My Life with Albertine and James Joyce’s The Dead), tend to fly under the radar, resists the temptation to wallow with his educated New York-born liberal characters in the dire condition of the American political climate. The title makes you fear that you’ll get a tirade on Sarah Palin (the phrase is a Palin quote) and the Tea Party – so easy to write, it seems, that there’s almost no way to avoid smugness. But Nelson is too smart for that. Instead the conflict isn’t between the characters and red-state America – which would be no dramatic conflict at all – but between the two elder Apple sisters and their brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), who has been working for Governor Cuomo and has begun to become more conservative, or at least less inclined to join in with the usual liberal chorus. What Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high-school English teacher, and especially Marian (Laila Robins), a second-grade teacher, see as defection is Richard’s quarrel with the easy assumptions of the culture they’ve all grown up, his revulsion at the speed with which everyone they know demonizes the right wing, falling back on the excuse that “they’re worse.”  Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a non-fiction writer who, like Richard, lives in New York City, is his quieter confederate; in an unstated act of rebellion against the monolithic New York reaction to the right wing and against the deterioration of American political discourse neither of them has voted on this day. Ingeniously, Nelson uses the sibling tensions as a way of exposing these political tensions.

The play was performed in the tiny space upstairs at the Public Theater (I sat a few feet away from the actors), and the staging and design (set and costumes by Susan Hilferty, lighting by Jennifer Tipton) were so understated that you almost felt you were watching a workshop. Almost: the performances of the six actors (including Shuler Hensley as Tim and Jon DeVries as Uncle Benjamin) were completely worked through, and convincing in every detail. By the end of the play (which was performed, as Sweet and Sad is, without an intermission) I realized I was leaning forward, tuned in to the family confab as intently as if I’d wandered into Barbara’s kitchen, and when the lights came up I heard theatergoers all around me commenting on how engaging these characters were, how authentic. It’s embarrassingly easy to get a New York audience up on its feet during curtain calls, but getting them to talk about the characters  now that’s a real achievement.  Nelson’s methodology, as a playwright but even more as a director, is deep-dyed naturalism. The actors gave superb performances that never gave away the secret that they were acting. 

The same company, as well as the same designers, reassembles for Sweet and Sad (which recently completed its three-week engagement at the Public), and the quality of the performance is consistent with that of That Hopey Changey Thing. The play ventures into tougher territory, however. 9/11 drama has tended to be not just moralizing and self-congratulatory but also maudlin and self-pitying; Nelson avoids the first trap but falls into the second as soon as he addresses straight on the subject of memorializing the event. It happens when Richard talks about the tradition he and some friends have held to every year on the anniversary, having breakfast together and venting their feelings and memories. This year, he reports, one of them suddenly cried out in protest, “Haven’t we done this long enough? Can’t we stop now?” and for a moment you can hear tears in Richard’s voice, an emotional outburst that clearly he didn’t anticipate and can’t control. There’s nothing wrong with the way Sanders delivers the speech; the speech is the problem.

Jay O. Sanders, Jon DeVries, & Laila Robin/Photo by Joan Marcus

This last section of the play is unfortunate, especially since up to now Nelson has done an impressive job of addressing the subject of 9/11 almost entirely by indirection. Sweet and Sad is a ghost story in which you keep sensing the dead in the rubble of the Twin Towers just behind the other, more pressing specters. First and foremost there’s Marian’s teenage daughter, who killed herself a year ago. In the blazing aftermath of her suicide Marian’s ex-husband blamed Marian for not answering her cell phone when her daughter called her for what would (or might not have been) the last time, because she was anticipating the latest in a long series of battles and wasn’t up for it that day. He has since repented his accusation and tried to apologize, but Marian won’t speak to him. Then there’s the ghost of Benjamin’s lost years, which return to him piecemeal but never permanently. Barbara, with the sometime help of Marian (who has moved in with them), has been encouraging him to talk about what he remembers and then writing it down, but when he looks at his own words on the page, days later, he does so with wonder, as if he were reading a fascinating confession by a stranger, someone, perhaps, dimly familiar. It’s only when these narrative lines converge with the memorial concert that the play loses its subtlety and the dramaturgy begins to feel heavy-handed.

The strength of the play, as with That Hopey Changey Thing, is the skillfully rendered interaction of the siblings, who rag on each other in ways that are both comically and painfully recognizable. Since we last saw this group a year earlier Jane and Tim have broken up and gotten back together again; Marian tells Jane how glad she is that they’re a couple again, adding pointlessly, “I never liked your husband.”  Jane observes that Richard has a habit of telling people where to sit in their own house, and when Barbara appears with extra chairs for dinner and Richard says, apologetically, that he could have done that for her, Jane quips, “Why didn’t you?” The Apples are tart and vigilant with each other; they don’t let much pass without comment. But then, neither do the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey into Night, and neither do our own families. The best thing about these little plays by Richard Nelson is that they’re still open-ended: he plans a third to coincide with Election Day 2012. I feel I know these interesting characters and I can’t wait to find out what happens to them in the next year. 

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes forThe Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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