In Luis Buñuel’s 1972 surrealist film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, several couples spend the entirety of the 102-minute run time on their way to a fine meal they never actually get to eat. I haven’t seen that movie in years, but my memory of it was one of many I involuntarily revisited during a long Sunday afternoon and evening spent ingesting Richard Nelson’s Gabriels cycle—three intimate plays each set in the kitchen of the same Rhinebeck, New York family home on different days in 2016.
In all of them, some portion of the six Gabriels, ranging in age from late 40s to early 80s, make dinner. Each show ends when they adjourn to the dining room. The Kennedy Center’s 388-seat Theatre Lab is already one of the coziest performance spaces in the building, but it’s been outfitted with overhead microphones and speakers for this production to allow these six superb actors to perform in conversational tones. The effect this has on the believability of their performances is far more remarkable than it, er, sounds. The smallness of the room also allows the place to fill up with the smell of freshly chopped onions and red peppers during the first play, which is called Hungry. (I hope all that fresh food isn’t going to waste.)
As they cook, these disaffected Gabriels talk about the things that grownup members of families talk about: money, memories, waning jobs, waning health, the kids who’re too busy to talk to them, the apparently unstoppable transformation of their Hudson Valley village (pop. 2,657) into a weekend retreat for the uber-wealthy. Many words are expended on food, where the meal is almost never the real subject. In Hungry, set on the evening after the family has scattered the ashes of a brother/son/ex-husband who died after a long illness, they mourn. Never for a moment in this act, or the next two—five-plus hours of yakety-yak, when all is said and done—does anyone sound like they’re in a play. Only rarely do they sound like they’re discussing politics. Nelson’s uncanny gift for mimicking the eddies and cul-de-sacs of real conversation makes him a bravura craftsman if not a genius, but it also invites a certain, my-kid-could-paint-that skepticism.
So does the fact that he has used this gimmick before. His four Apple Family Plays looked in on a half-dozen middle-aged-and-up members of a different family (in the same town!) on four politically consequential days circa 2010-2013. Both cycles relied heavily on the device of having one character read aloud from an old journal or an archaic document. All seven of the combined Apple/Gabriel plays are about 105 minutes long, and performed sans intermission.
One difference: The Apples were always eating, not cooking. The two families would seem to occupy a similar socio-economic sphere, but the years since Nelson began this grand project have not been kind to the Gabriels. Mary (Maryann Plunkett), widowed by the recently departed Thomas, was a physician, but she allowed her license to expire and she’s cowed by the task of reactivating it decades after she finished med school. Her brother-in-law George (Jay O. Sanders, Plunkett’s real-life spouse) is a skilled carpenter who gives piano lessons to make ends meet, at least until the Gabriels are forced to sell their cherished piano for a fraction of its value. He’s married to Hannah (Lynn Hawley), who has become the only English-speaking maid at a local inn as her catering business has slowed. Joyce (Amy Warren), George’s sister, is a costume designer for theater and movies. Karin Gabriel (Meg Gibson) is an actor and teacher who was married to Thomas long before Mary was, but kept his name after their split on the advice of her agent.
Nelson has always had at least one of his not-wealthy characters working in or retired from showbiz; maybe he believes the notion that it’s a real profession needs defending. (And maybe he’s right.) Thomas, the brother who died, was a playwright whose fame was great enough that the Gabriels hope to settle some debts by auctioning off his personal papers and correspondence.
Is it necessary to see all three to get the complete sense of what Nelson is channeling? I don’t think so; this is not like the two parts of Angels in America, where the very enormity of time invested is central to its effect. This is a major work but a cellular one, with the considerable strengths of the whole fully present in each piece. If you see all three, and I would never dissuade you from doing so, there is an option to catch them on consecutive Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings.
Studio Theatre staged its own marvelous productions of the Apple quartet as two discrete double-features, each with the same cast, in 2013 and 2015. The Kennedy Center has simply imported the Public Theatre’s 2016 Gabriels cycle wholesale, cast intact. As with the Apple plays, each one in this triptych first premiered on the day it takes place.
That last fact must’ve been an especially bitter pill in the case of the final Gabriels play, Women of a Certain Age. It ends at around 7 p.m. on Election Day, when nearly everyone, including Nate Silver, President-Elect Donald J. Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, still believed Hillary Clinton would win. Foreknowledge of the outcome gives these three plays about people trying to recall the promise of the country they remember a more sour resonance than they might’ve had for the audiences who saw them in New York last year.
“What happened to that Hillary?” the Gabriel women repeatedly ask one another after rereading one of Clinton’s youthful statements. Hawley’s Hannah, at least, seems quietly angry and desperate enough to have voted Trump.
That’s a credit to her and to Nelson, who is a master of trapping life under glass. His own strata of life, at least; he’s white and in his 60s, like most of his characters, and he’s lived in Rhinebeck for years. But he is particularly strong writing for women. (George is the only male character here.) What Did You Expect, the middle part of the trilogy, finds the Gabriels wrangling with the news their elderly mother (Roberta Maxwell) has reverse-mortgaged away the family home and run up debts at her assisted-living facility.
As each play begins, the actors begin dressing the set with the props, even covering the fridge with magnet-affixed snapshots. This was clearly ritual, not functional; even on the Sunday marathon I attended, where nothing else was happening in the Theatre Lab between performances, the stage was still cleared and re-dressed before every performance, though the setting for each was nearly identical. Nelson and his actors remind us at the top that this is all artifice, and then once again, they miraculously make us forget.
At the Kennedy Center Theatre Lab to January 22. 2700 F St. NW. (202) 467-4600. $49-$120. kennedy-center.org.