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A CurtainUp Review
The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times
It's the summer of all that's happening in the world, in China and elsewhere, and we're here. Nowhere. Near Utica. ‘What are we doing dancing? — Rose
The Michaels
Charlotte Bydwell and rest of cast (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is beautifully acted and meticulously directed by its author Richard Nelson in a representational style to show life as theater and theater as life. But first full disclosure: I went with a chip on my shoulder based on my experiences with his previous plays in this series done in the same manner. I was also aided by a hearing device with an app on my smart phone that was connected to the theater's coil connection. This, so I could hear the dialogue spoken by the actors in an unusually soft and unamplified conversational style.

Forewarned (by his previous plays) is forearmed. But first: There is no doubt in my mind that Stella Adler, the admired American actor who founded her still renowned Studio of Acting based on the acting technique credited to Russian theater director Constantine Stanislavsky, would be among the first to sing the praises of Nelson's play and it players.

There were times as I watched this play that I could see what Adler was striving for: to see life as theater and theater as life. Rarely does anything I see on or off Broadway come as close to experiencing this conceit as is Nelson's latest addition to his series of Rhinebeck, New York plays. It continues in the same untypical theatrical style offered in the previous plays.

Before I tell you of what I experienced, let me share this quote by Adler: "The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. The theatre is a spiritual and social X-ray of its time. The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation."

Those who have already seen some or all of Nelson's continuing series of Rhinebeck, New York plays: comprising The Apple Family Plays (four plays) and The Gabriels (three plays,) are already prepared for seeing life as theater or theater as life as it unfolds for his fictional characters.

If this play revels in a dramatic conceit that basically contradicts another popular theory that theater is (referencing German director Irwin Piscator with whom I studied in my salad days) "intensified life," the actors in these plays are so gifted in the art of naturalism without pretense that comparison and/or and criticism of what is generally accepted as the theatrical norm is pointless.

Looking upon the action which is performed in the round in the Public's most intimate space, the tiered LuEsther Hall , is like a combination of key-hole peeking and eavesdropping. The setting is the ailing Rose Michael's kitchen where family and extended family members have gathered to be with her and also help prepare and eat dinner. Unlike the more politically/socially infused issues confronted by the Apples and Gabriels, the Michaels are focused on the artistic legacy to be left by Rose (Brenda Wehle), a choreographer of renown whose acclaimed works for her company have influenced the modern dance world. Rose has recently lost a major commission to create a dance composition while also confronted with her impending her death from ovarian cancer.

The play's dramatic arc or progression is revealed more by the interaction and the relationships of its characters than by a traditional plot. Among those who beside Rose drive the momentum are her ex-husband David (Jay O. Sanders) and his wife Sally (Rita Wolf) who once danced in Rose's company. Also present are Rose's current partner Kate (Maryann Plunkett), a retired history teacher; David's visiting daughter Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) who is also a dancer; choreographer and once one of Kate's students;Rose's niece May (Matilda Sakamoto); and an old friend Irenie (Haviland Morris.

The beauty and strength of the play exists in the subtle twists and turns in the chatter as these mainly artsy people (except for academic Kate) share and exchange their perspectives and circumstances. Their personas and insignificantly crossed purposes are expressed and notably played out without histrionics or melodramatics. That is except for the forthrightness of Rose, whose authority is, nevertheless, conspicuous by its presence.

Getting used to the excellence of Sander's and Plunkett's under-playing in Nelson's f plays is easy once one is resigned to only the rarest outbursts or the signals from body language that something is happening. Everyone else in the cast fits into Nelson's world with such calm assurance that one becomes resigned to watch them even when their words sound as distant as are their intentions to rock the calm.

The calm, however, is rocked on occasion by three enlivening dances previously created by Rose and Lucy (the program credits choreography to Dan Wagoner). These are danced by Lucy and May around the kitchen as a reminder of Rose's genius as a choreographer, as well as serving as a sampling of a performance planned for an upcoming retrospective of Rose's career. Oh yes, quiche and salad is prepared from scratch and later on served without much aplomb. . the play.

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The Michaels ,written and directed by Richard Nelson.
Cast: Charlotte Bydwell (Lucy Michael), Haviland Morris (Irenie Walker), Maryann Plunkett (Kate Harris), Matilda Sakamoto (May Mary Jane Smith), Jay O. Sanders (David Michael), Brenda Wehle (Rose Michael), and Rita Wolf (Sally Michael).
Scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West
Co-costume design by Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss
Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton
Sound design by Scott Lehrer
Dance coaching by Sara Rudner based on original choreography by Dan Wagoner
Choreography consulting by Gwyneth Jones.
Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Public's LuEsther Theater 420 Lafayette Street
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours no intermission.
From 10/19/19; opening 10/27/19; closing 11/17/19.
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/30/19

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