The Apple Family Plays have nothing do with iPads or MacBooks or the indignities visited upon those who assemble them. Richard Nelson’s quartet of hypercontemporary dramas attempt merely to chart the national mood, to the extent that such a thing exists (possible) and that a gathering of six white New Yorkers, the youngest of whom is 43 years old, can assess it (dubious). The Public Theatre in New York is in the midst of a run of all four, which take place between Election Day 2010 and, well, last Friday—-the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, as you could not have failed to observe. Each play opened on the day it’s set. So far, Studio Theatre is just offering the first pair, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad. They’re set on Nov. 2, 2010 and Sept. 11, 2011, respectively.
A longtime fan of futuristic stories, which sometimes tell you when they’re happening and sometimes don’t, I wonder a lot about the importance of date specificity in storytelling. I saw these plays on the same day, separated by a two-hour dinner break, and less than 24 hours later, I need my notebook to help me recall which events occurred in which one. That’s “events” in the Chekhovian sense, only nobody even kills a seagull or fires a pistol. As directed with great sensitivity by Serge Seiden, these plays are so patient and closely observed that the emotional hold they assert over you is insidious: You’re the mute and invisible dinner guest among the decent, unremarkable Apples. After a time, you realize you feel something for them.
I suspect this holds true even if you see only one play or the other. Both are intermissionless and come in under two hours. They don’t unfold quite in real time; a single piano chord sometimes signals the passage of an unspecified but brief interval, probably no more than an hour. Both plays confine themselves to the dining room of Barbara, a schoolteacher in the little village of Rhinebeck, N.Y., about 100 miles north of Manhattan. She looks after her uncle Benjamin, an elderly stage actor who’s suffered from severe amnesia since his heart attack years earlier. Her brother and two sisters visit—-by Sweet and Sad, one of them has moved in with Barbara and Benjamin—-along with the other sister’s boyfriend. They dodge one another’s questions about their jobs and spouses and ex-spouses. They talk a lot about the dispiriting state (and State) of New York, and of Mayor Bloomberg and soon-to-be Governor Cuomo, and of the country to the left of it but politically to the right of it, many citizens of which would not miss the city were it to sink into the Atlantic.
When they tire of clawing at each other, they begin to listen, and to admit how scared and disappointed they’ve all become.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the show. That’s both shows, though the first is more specifically about disillusionment and the second about grief. Are you entranced? Are you captivated?
I was, mostly. I’m still trying to work out exactly why. The season of compulsory family dinners and reprisals of ancient arguments is upon us. And here, should you wish to get out of the house, is a cumulative three-and-a-half hours of a family confined together, being bored and being picked on and being sympathetic and being cruel. But they don’t seem markedly more prosperous or politically conscious or educated than your family, probably, if you’re in the audience at Studio Theatre.
Which I suppose is why I much prefer the Apple twofer over a play that’s outwardly quite similar to these, Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution, which Theater J mounted back in September. God is in the details, and perhaps in the way Nelson doesn’t invest all his righteousness or all his disappointment into any single character. He does give Richard a great monologue about how ashamed he felt when the left pounced to eviscerate Sarah Palin before she’d even had a chance to show us what a preening, addlebrained candidate she was. When, he wonders, did “we’re not as awful as they are” become an acceptable compass reading of good conduct?
It’s a great question. It’s also the moment that teeters on the precipice of being a moral. But Rick Foucheux’s nauseated reading makes the speech a howl, not a homily. He understands that anger, however well-founded, isn’t unique or righteous.
Foucheux isn’t the only ace in this deck. The cast is a murderer’s row of D.C.’s most celebrated actors: Sarah Marshall as Barbara; Kimberly Schraf as her sister Jane, who’s writing a book on American manners; Foucheux as Richard, who leaves his job in the office of the Attorney General to work for a rich private law firm, and is no longer sure of his Democratic stripes. Elizabeth Perotti plays Marian, the angriest of the Apple sisters. Ted van Griethuysen is Benjamin, who pivots unpredictably between delirium and piercing eloquence. Jane’s boyfriend Tim (Studio newcomer Jeremy Webb), a TV actor of changeable fortunes, submits for Benjamin’s comment a theory that great acting is a feat of “willed amnesia.” His reverent refusal to tiptoe around the mentally wounded man endears him to the Apples. In Sweet and Sad, the latter play, the family asks Benjamin to read from transcripts they’ve been making of conversations with him during his spells of lucidity. He has no idea what an insightful guy he is.
Is it too grand to propose that van Griethuysen, who stands out even among this estimable bunch as a master of his art, is an allegorical figure for the United States? A showman who used to do great things, and who can still be stirred seemingly at random to greatness, though he spends most of his days in a fog? Whose memory is selective at best? Who must outsource the chore of feeding and clothing himself to his poor niece? Probably so. And yet his infrequent moments of clarity still seem to restore the hope of everyone else in the room. They’re slow burners, these Apple Family Plays, but their effects are lasting.