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A CurtainUp Review
That Hopey Changey Thing
By Elyse Sommer
The performance began at 7pm and ended just before the voting booths closed. The plot, if you can use that term for the family gathering Mr. Nelson has concocted for this world premiere, unfolds over 90 minutes. By the time the dinner in Barbara Apple's home in Rhinebeck, New York ended and city branch of the family headed back to Manhattan, the voting booths had closed and the audience could get home in time to watch the outcome on TV.
You certainly can't get more timely than that. But as the playwright explains in his program note, this timeliness does make That Hopey Changey Thing a potentially disposable play. In other words, it was dated the minute the actors took their curtain calls.
But even if its relevancy holds only for the remainder of the play's brief run, bear in mind that this is part of the Public LAB series designed to give New Yorkers access to new plays in their developmental stage and the official election day opening notwithstanding, hardly prevents the author from find ing a way to make That Hopey Changey Thing work without the conceit of the on and off-stage time paralell.
Nelson has put enough flesh on his Apple clan to make them more than stick figure stand-ins for the average American voter he rarely thinks get a chance to take the stage to discuss the state of the union and those with policy making power. In fact, he seems to have already established a pathway towards broadening the play's canvas by creating a smidgen of a backstory about Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a retired actor suffering from amnesia who has been like a father to them. The questions briefly raised about the younger Apples' memories of their father and their relationship with the uncle have the makings of a play, even without the politics.
Unsurprisingly, that "average American voter" needs to be more specifically defined, as in "average well-informed liberal Democratic voter.". (Plays about politics, especially in New York, tend to address a choir of the like-minded). In this case, the two Rhinebeck sisters, Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and Marian (Laila Robins), especially Marian, are actively involved in Democratic politics. The same is true for brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders) who is a lawyer in the State Attorney General's office.
Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) the Manhattan sister is a non-fiction writer, and her latest book about manners allows the conversation to detour to a different, yet loosely related topic. The mix of lawyer, schoolteachers, author and actors (Jane's boyfriend Tim, played by Shuler Hensley, is like Uncle Benjamin an actor, though mostly on TV) enabled Nelson to achieve his mission to populate his play with "complex, complicated people" and to also introduce some diversions from the political agenda , like having Benjamin read a scene he once did in The Cherry Orchard.
You can't fault That Hopey Changey Thing for its intention, which is certainly worthy. But for all the name dropping (Cuomo, Spitzer, Gillibrand and, yes, Sarah Palin whose speech at the February Tea Party Convention is the source of the title), it's not especially enlightening. To make what is essentially table talk work as a drawing room drama, Nelson, who also directs, relies too much on a lot of business about setting up the buffet dinner, eating, and clearing up -- plus intermittent interruptions to tend to Toby, the new dog Richard has brought to replace Uncle Benjamin's recently deceased Oliver. To be sure, the dog provides an opportune if not all that subtle metaphor: As the dog gets skunked, so does the public by the politicians, and by its own tendency to vote for the wrong ones.
Fortunately, whether the play gets a chance to retool itself for a less time and election specific run, the current cast offers a chance to see six top of the line actors making this a dinner party worth attending — and at $15 a ticket, without needing any stimulus money to do so. Hopefully, the animated conversation will become more of a model for discussing the state of our union than superficial tweets and Facebook comments.