Monday, December 10, 2012

Election Day with the Apple Family: Sorry

J. Smith-Cameron and Laila Robins in Sorry (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Since I was a fan of both the first two parts of Richard Nelson’s Apple family tetralogy, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, I would like to report that with Sorry, which he wrote to coincide with the presidential election, he hits another ball out of the park. But it’s something of a disappointment, despite the obvious intelligence of the writing and the usual skill of the acting. (As with the earlier entries, Nelson also directed.) Nelson’s coup with the first two plays is that he managed to create a plausible, compelling family of New York state liberals whose conversation veers easily and provocatively into the political. The plays aren’t doctrinaire or preachy; they’re political dramas by virtue of their setting (That Hopey Changey Thing opened around the time of the mid-term elections, Sweet and Sad on the tenth anniversary of 9/11) and the savvy of the well-read, articulate, deep-thinking quartet of main characters: a brother and three sisters meeting up at the home of one (now two) of the sisters in upstate Rhinebeck. But Sorry doesn’t manage the balance of the personal and the political with the grace and fluidity of the earlier plays (though the 9/11 content of Sweet and Sad, to be truthful, was its weak point). For an hour the election is barely mentioned and then, abruptly, the dialogue picks it up. For the first time in the Apple series, when the characters begin to discuss politics, I don’t quite believe it.

Jon Devries and Maryann Plunkett (Photo by Joan Marcus)
In Sweet and Sad Marian (Laila Robins), a third-grade teacher, had recently moved in with Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) after Marian’s daughter committed suicide. Since then both of them, not just Barbara, have been taking care of their uncle, Benjamin (Jon Devries), a one-time actor who lost much of his memory after a heart attack sent him into a coma. Trying to make Benjamin comfortable, however, and dealing with the eccentricities generated by his amnesia are primarily Barbara’s projects. Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) still lives in Manhattan with her boy friend Tim, also an actor, though we learn in Sorry that they have been considering moving out to Rhinebeck. (There are two versions of this story: whether this prospect is Jane’s idea or Tim’s isn’t clear. Tim himself doesn’t appear in Sorry; he’s in Chicago performing in a production of James Joyce’s The Dead – a self-referential touch, since Nelson wrote the libretto for that musical.) By Sorry Benjamin’s behavior has become more of a concern. In Sweet and Sad he was hanging out in a local bar and inviting strangers home to Barbara’s house. Now he’s begun to act out sexually, staring at Barbara in the shower or when she’s sleeping (activities that he writes down in the journal Barbara got him to keep after he left the hospital) and unsettling some of her friends. The doctors guess that his amnesia is increasingly accompanied by a lack of self-censorship – and that his conduct is bound to get worse. So with great reluctance she has let the others talk her into putting him in a facility, and her brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a Manhattan lawyer, has shown up the morning of the election because the siblings agreed that all four of them would take the trip with Benjamin together. But Barbara is extremely conflicted over the decision, especially since Benjamin – when he remembers that he’s going to have to leave what he’s come to think of as his home – is resentful and blames her.

Some of the dialogue appears to overlap with the earlier plays: Richard’s speech about the way Democrats obsess about defining themselves as not Republicans sounds a lot like his spiel in That Hopey Changey Thing, and Marian’s allusion to listening to the music her daughter left on her iPod comes right out of Sorry. Aside from the Benjamin plot, the play doesn’t seem to have much of its own to propel itself, and it’s not clear how that story line links up with the election (or, for that matter, why we listen to Benjamin read Oscar Wilde’s letter from Reading Gaol to Lord Alfred Douglas, which he’s preparing for a talent show). The play isn’t difficult to sit through, but it does amble; I couldn’t say with certainty what it’s about. And Nelson doesn’t seem to know how to end it; he just cuts it off at around the two-hour point. Perhaps he’ll rediscover his inspiration by the final chapter.

– 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 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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