A CurtainUp Review
Scenes From Life in the Country
By Elyse Sommer
Nelson is back with a new and final visit to and table talk in Barbara Apple's home in Rhinebeck, New York (also Nelson's home). And the Public Theater in a savvy marketing move is reprising the three previous plays to run in repertory. For theater-as-an-event enthusiasts this makes it possible to go Apple-marathoning on several weekends.
Though in his program notes for the first play, That Hopey Changey Thing, Nelson expressed his awareness that his time-synched approach might be theatrical ephemera, his hopes for more durability were evident in the template he used: The role model for his fictional Apple family was clearly the great Anton Chekhov's masterpiece The Three Sisters. I've always liked Nelson's quiet style and have enjoyed getting to know Barbara, Marian Jane Apple, their brother Richard and Uncle (possibly father) Benjamin. It's a style that lends itself perfectly to this now completed cycle of plays contemplating critical events in our nation's history through the lens of an intelligent, closely connected American family whose conversations blend reflections on the event under consideration and their personal concerns.
The pivotal events for each of the previous plays included two elections and the anniversary of a national tragedy. First up was the 2010 election, with vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin responsible for the title That Hopey Changy Thing. Next came Sweet and Sad coinciding with the anniversary of the September 11th tragedy. With Sorry we returned to Rhinebeck on the eve of of our first African-American president's election.
Each play balanced the socio-political event with the personal events in the lives of the various family members. In Hopey-Changey, the beloved retired actor Uncle Benjamin has moved into Barbara's home after suffering a heart attack and amnesia. In Sweet and Sad, Marian has also moved in with Barbara following the suicide of her twenty-year-old daughter, a double tragedy since it also led to the end of her 30-year marriage. Sorry, saw Barbara and Marian wait for their brother's return from a lengthy business trip before moving the increasingly difficult to care for Benjamin to an assisted living home.
While Nelson is a fine playwright, he's no Chekhov. But these Nelsonized and very likeable Chekhovians have struck a chord with audiences because their daily lives, dreams, frustrations and tragedies are so average. Barbara and Marian are teachers, Jane is a non-fiction writer, her boyfriend Tim an aspiring actor, brother Richard a lawyer. Uncle Benjamin, though a once successful actor who's now in a nearby facility but with his nieces most weekends, typifies the all too common caretaker issues faced by so many midle-aged, middle class Americans.
One of the reasons the serialization of these basically plotless Apple family dinners is that they connected us not only to the characters but the actors playing them. I was a bit apprehensive to learn that two members of this wonderfully naturalistic ensemble were otherwise engaged. (J. Smith Cameron in Juno and the Paycock and Shuler Hensley in the Broadway Pinter and Beckett in rep production ). Fortunately, their replacements —, Stephen Kunken as Tim, Jane's meaningful other and Sally Murphy as Jane — are fine actors. Kunken fits in especially well, so much so, that you quickly forget that he hasn't been on board all along.
Given that the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the world event to which Regular Singing is tied, don't expect Mr. Nelson's experiment in serialized, time-specific playwrihting to end on a festive note. On the contrary, it's the most somber and melancholy of all the plays.
The tragic and violent death of a young president isn't just part of the usual wide-ranging table-talk, but is a very real presence in the Apple home. Death is the overriding theme. The memories and reflections triggered by the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination are intensified for the Apples by the fact that Barbara and Marian have brought her dying ex-husband Adam into their home. The immediate family food and conversation set-up follows a get-together of Adam's relatives who came to pay their final respects to Adam as he is also about to die on this historic date.
Unlike the more laid-back emotionalism of the previous plays, Regular Singing, Nelson gives free reign to personal feelings here. Characters are allowed to actually shed tears and express anger and sadness. He tackles not just Kennedy and Adam's death but the big question of what being alive is all about — and through Adam's very detailed instructions for his memorial service, what we can and do leave behind when the inevitable comes to all of us.
Per the previous plays there's some amusing political commentary, most courtesy of Richard who's now working for Governor Andrew Cuomo. There's also some slyly inserted business about Jane Austin's letters to justify a dramatic structure that focuses on the trivial dailyness of family life. The sisters' reaction to Richard's current life in Albany (where he moved t from New York after his wife left him) is a nice turnaround on the parallel to Chekhov's sisters. While Chekhov's sisters' prevailing wish was to leave their boring village the more exciting Moscow, the Apple sisters are deeply rooted in Rhinebeck. In fact, they feel Richard should move in with them. While the reason for Richard's move to Albany from New York (his wife left him) is amply clarified, Jane and Tim's moving to Rhinebeck is a bit puzzling. They previously lived in Manhattan Plaza, a highly desirable and hard to get into affordable housing complex.
As the Apples have gained new fans with each new episode, the plays have also gotten longer. The brisk 90-minutes of the first play, escalated to an hour and 40 minutes, then hour and 45 minutes — and now an over-stuffed two hours with a somewhat too self-indulgently heartstring pulling ending.
A caveat: The Anspacher is a pretty big theater and depending on where you sit, you might experience some difficulty hearing everything said, much of it quite low to fit the emotional mood of the speake. Though microphones are lowered all around the playing area, they're quite high and don't seem to always do the job. I noticed quite a few people leaning forward and apparently straining to hear.
While Regular Singing is still available as part of the LAB productions' bargain-priced tickets, the revivals of the previous plays will set you back quite a bit more. Links to Curtainup's reviews of the previous plays below.
That Hopey Changey Thing
Sweet and Sad