15 December 2013

'That Hopey Changey Thing'

At the beginning of December, I made another visit to my mother in Bethesda, Maryland, after we spent Thanksgiving together with family in New Jersey.  Mom and a friend have a subscription to the Studio Theatre, and she and her companion picked up an extra seat for me to join them at the matinee of Richard Nelson’s That Hopey Changey Thing on Saturday, 7 December.  The Studio is presenting the regional premières of two of Nelson’s Apple Family Plays (Studio’s umbrella title for the series) in rep this season, the other play being Sweet and Sad.  (Mother and her friend had only planned to see one of the two plays, but the theater offers weekend performance schedules that allow patrons to see both in one day.)  The two-play rep began performances on 13 November (opening for reviews around 28 November) and is scheduled to end on 29 December.

The Studio Theatre, one of Washington’s premier companies (I saw Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy there in September; see my report on ROT on 5 October), winner of 67 Helen Hayes Awards, was founded in 1978 (in a disused hot dog warehouse on Church Street near its present location).  Since 2004, it makes its home in a four-theater, 14th Street building (a former car showroom redesigned by co-founder Russell Metheny, for whom one of the four theater spaces in the current home base is named) in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington’s Northwest.  The area, reclaimed several years ago from extensive decay and deterioration, has become a sort of Washington SoHo or Chelsea, well served by restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and theaters.  The theater’s founding artistic director, now retired, was Joy Zinoman whose son, Jason, is a theater writer for the New York Times.  The Studio has produced plays by Richard Nelson before, namely Principia Scriptoriae in 1989 and Tynan in 2011; The Apple Family Plays, both 100 intermissionless minutes long, are mounted in the tiny amphitheater-shaped, 187-seat Milton Theatre on the Studio’s second floor.

It turned out, though, that my visit to the Studio this time was more arduous than usual.  First of all, I had to drive since Mom’s subscription partner, who usually drives after we meet up at her apartment, ended up being ill that weekend and we went with another friend of my mother’s.  I don’t really know my way around D.C. in a car, so Mom had to navigate, and she’s not used to going from her new residence in Bethesda.  We left extra time for the drive in and for finding parking in the area which is a haven for shoppers and diners, especially on a Saturday afternoon during the holiday-shopping period, and it was a good thing we did.  It took us at least 20 minutes to find a parking space, and it was some distance from the theater.  Both Mom and her friend are elderly and the walk back was hard on them both (I had suggested leaving them off at the theater while I looked for parking, but they both refused the offer), and we managed to get to the theater with minutes to spare for the 3-o’clock curtain.  Then, someone had screwed up the extra seat, too (either the theater staff or my mother), and it wasn’t in the books when I arrived.  First, the box office gave me another seat, but that turned out to be occupied and the spare seat the house staff found me was behind everyone so badly I couldn’t see the stage and I ended up standing for the hour-and-forty-minute performance.  I could stand easily enough without disturbing anyone, being behind the last row of regular seats, but I was boxed in by a column and a railing so I couldn’t shift my weight much, and by an hour or so in, my arthritic back was aching pretty badly.  If the work hadn’t been as good as it was, I’d have been a very unhappy chappy at the end!

Playwright Richard Nelson’s first produced play was The Killing of Yablonski in 1975 at the Mark Taper Forum/Lab in Los Angeles.  The District’s renowned Arena Stage premièred his Scooping in 1977 and his first New York City première was 1978’s Conjuring an Event at the American Place Theatre.  His Broadway début was the book for Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Belasco Theatre in 1984.  Between 1989 and 1997, after a successful 1986 revival of Principia Scriptoriae, which had received mixed response in the States, six of Nelson’s plays premièred in either London or Stratford-upon-Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which commissioned them, before coming to the U.S.; the author seemed better-regarded by British audiences than here for a time.  (During this period, he also wrote radio plays for the BBC for two of which he’s won Giles Cooper Awards.)  Nelson later won a 2000 Tony for his book for James Joyce's The Dead; he received two other Tony nominations (for the lyrics for The Dead and for Best Play for Two Shakespearean Actors in 1992).  Other awards include two Obies (Vienna Notes, 1979; Innovative Programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Theater Company, also 1979), a Drama Desk Award (Some Americans Abroad, 1990), an Olivier Award for Best Play (London; The Vienna Notes, 2011); and a Rockefeller Foundation Playwright-in-Residence Award for an Arena Stage residency in 1979-80.  From 2005-2008, Nelson was chairman of the playwriting department of the Yale School of Drama.  Aside from Regular Singing at the Public, he had Nikolai and the Others running at Lincoln Center Theater in May and June.  (Nelson also writes screenplays for film and TV.  His last film script was 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson, which starred Bill Murray as FDR and began as a BBC radio play in 2009.) 

The author of some 50 plays and adaptations, the 63-year-old Nelson was born in Chicago but grew up all over the country to accommodate his father’s peripatetic work as an accounting-systems analyst and sales rep; the family settled for long stretches in Gary, Indiana, and the Philadelphia and Detroit suburbs.  The playwright and his wife moved to Manchester, England, in 1972, right after he graduated from college, and lived there for a year, traveling also to the Continent.  Since 1983, he’s lived with his family in Rhinebeck in upstate New York, where the Apple plays are set.  (The New York Times just ran an article on Nelson’s intimate use of his hometown—the dramatist’s Lafayette/Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, or Harrison, Texas—as a continuing inspiration for these plays: “Hudson Valley Town Is a Playwright’s Home and Template,” 7 November.)  As New York Times theater writer Patrick Healy observes, “[T]he search for home—and the loss of it—has been an enduring theme” for the playwright as he strives to “conjur[e] up a comfortable, intimate home in which his characters feel safe enough to express fear or regret about the wider world at a particularly unsettling moment.”  Healy mentions previous Nelson scripts that touch on this theme: Some Americans Abroad, (1989) Goodnight Children Everywhere (1997), James Joyce’s The Dead (1999), and Nikolai and the Others (2013). 

That Hopey Changey Thing is unquestionably among this group, too—as, I suspect, are the other Apple plays.  They’ve been generally critically acclaimed, but Nelson asserts that because he’s set them in places he knows so well, “that leads, I hope, to an honesty, clarity, simplicity in the writing and for the audience.”  Unlike William Faulkner’s or Horton Foote’s literary settings, Nelson’s Rhinebeck is a real place and he names real shops, buildings, and houses as locations.  Near his home, for instance, is a yellow-painted house with broken picket fences that Nelson calls “Barbara’s house.”  (The writer doesn’t know the people who live there; they aren’t models for the Apple family.)  “I literally imagine every moment of the plays somewhere in my own village,” he says.  “For me, it makes everything extremely personal.”

The origin of the Apple series, however, was somewhat unexpected, according to Studio dramaturg Adrien-Alice Hansel.   In New York, Public Theater artistic director, Oskar Eustis, had been unsuccessfully searching for a play about the contemporary U.S. political scene.  At a breakfast with playwright Nelson, Eustis proposed commissioning a “big-cast, big-idea political” script, “perhaps a documentary-style chronicle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Nelson countered with an offer of “a series of intimate plays about a single family” whose members “respond to the political issues of their day in their own idiosyncratic—character-based—ways.”  The dramatist explains, “What has been missing from our political forum is the individual’s voice.”  Studio artistic director David Muse told the cast that the Apple plays are “plays about politics, but not capital-P Political Plays” and director Serge Seiden, who sees a parallel between Nelson’s work and Chekhov’s (some of which Nelson has adapted), explained, “These plays deal with the universal truths in ordinary details of living,” a notion that evokes the book Jane Apple is writing in the play. 

The Studio’s two plays about the Apple family are the first in the four-play cycle Nelson wrote about the Apple siblings (plus others) in the small, Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County (about 100 miles north of New York City).  (The whole series, which the playwright began in 2010, will be presented under his own direction at New York City’s Public Theater, including the world première of the last play, Regular Singing.  Billed as The Apple Family Plays: Scenes From Life In The Country, the four plays will be performed in rep from 22 October to 15 December.)  The plays are all set in sister Barbara’s dining room in four consecutive years.  As the members and friends of the Apple family eat, we witness their tensions, compromises, affections, and resentments.  Nelson describes the Apples as “worried liberals of a certain generation,” and each play reflects how the dramatist imagines Rhinebeckers like them will respond to momentous events in the nation.  

In Hopey Changey, the first play in the cycle, it’s 7 p.m. on the evening of President Obama’s first midterm election in 2010 (2 November, the day the play opened in New York), and Barbara Apple, an unmarried high school English teacher, is hosting dinner for the family.  During the meal, the diners dig into family secrets the answers to which have been lost, the cultural significance of etiquette, and the precarious shape of American politics.  In the second installment, Sweet and Sad, a year has passed, and Barbara is serving brunch on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks (also the day the play débuted, 11 September 2011) and the family members talk about loss, memory, and ten years of change.  Uncle Benjamin, a once highly-respected classical stage actor, has amnesia from a heart attack; sister Marian, a second-grade teacher, is politically active for liberal causes and candidates (such as Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom were running that day for election as governor and senator, respectively); and brother Richard, a lawyer who’s left state attorney general Andrew Cuomo’s office on the eve of the politician’s election to the governorship to take a job with a corporate-law firm, is moving rightward politically.  Youngest sister Jane, a writer living in Manhattan who’s taken a gig at Bard College (in nearby Annandale-on-Hudson, seven miles north of Rhinebeck along the Hudson), has brought along her new boyfriend, Tim, an actor and much younger man. 

(If you spot a pattern in the opening dates of Nelson’s Apple saga plays, you’re right.  Each play is not only focused on a moment in American political history, but each one debuted on the auspicious date on which the play is set as well.  Play number three, Sorry, is set on the morning of the 2012 election, 6 November, and that’s the day the play opened at the Public.  Regular Singing is set on 22 November 2013, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination; it premièred on that date.  Nelson’s even been known to make changes and updates to the Apple scripts right up to opening if there’s breaking news or new commentary on the events depicted.  I’ve heard of gimmick-casting before, but this is my first encounter with gimmick-opening.  I’m not sure how much that adds to the performances themselves, especially if you don’t see the plays on the original opening nights—like I won’t be doing—but I guess it doesn’t do any harm.  Maybe it makes the theater writers perk up and compose quirkier notices, such as New York magazine reviewer Scott Brown’s remark in his notice for Sorry in 2012: “I've been trying to find words to describe what it felt like to be inside that theater as the election raged noisily outside, what it's like listening to the Apples speak to each other in inside-voices.  It was a lovely, near-religious feeling of shared citizenship, one of the things theater was invented to foster.”  Whatever . . . .)

I’ve already intimated how I felt about the presentation of Hopey Changey, so let me start there.  As I’ve always found at the Studio, the stage work, from the acting and directing to the design and tech, is top-notch.  The only artist in this production with whose work I’m familiar is Ted van Grie­thuysen, who plays the amnesiac uncle, but everyone acquits him- or herself excellently here.  (I’ve seen van Grie­thuysen as Dogberry in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Cuban-themed production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2011 and as Malvolio in STC’s Twelfth Night in 2008—both in New Year’s Eve performances.  As the winner of six Helen Hayes Awards, he’s one of Washington’s most respected actors, and deservedly so.)  I found the play a little brittle and set-up, about which I’ll say more shortly, but the staging was solid and engaging (hence my lack of choler at having to stand to see it!). 

The Milton’s small stage, a semi-circular thrust with only a back wall, was convincingly decorated to evoke the dining room of a comfortable small-town house.  Debra Booth’s set design relies on just a Scandinavian-style wooden dining table with four spoke-backed chairs, an oriental rug centered on the wood floor.  A card table is set up down stage right, covered with a table cloth, to accommodate the extra diners (the main table having been shifted up center, also covered, so that the family can eat buffet-style when they all arrive.  The chairs are scattered about because, except for the elderly Uncle Benjamin, the family and guests are expected to balance their plates on their knees.  The lone wall has a kitchen door at center, with a sliver of the kitchen visible within when the door is opened.  According to the Studio’s newsletter, there’s actually “a full-fledged kitchen” back there, even though we can’t see most of it, “to emphasize the reality of the play.”  (There’s a barking dog somewhere back there, too—a replacement for Uncle Benjamin’s beloved pet who had to be euthanized and of whom the older man can’t let go in his mind.) 

That Hopey Changey Thing opens as members of the household bring out the card table, move the dining table, drape the cloths, lay out the tableware and the food, all in silence.  Occasionally, the lights dim, accompanied by a piano chord, and everyone stops briefly (as will happen later during the dialogue scenes as well), indicating that time is passing, after which the actors take new positions and the action restarts as the set is assembled for the play itself.  I don’t know how Nelson has described this opening sequence, so it may have been his or director Seiden’s invention, but this business is carried out nearly choreographically, with many movements, such as the unfolding of the table cloths, performed in unison.  The actors barely relate to one another, and when they do, it looked to me like pro forma “recognition,” not organic, character-based interaction.  This stylization wasn’t reprised during the body of the play, so it stuck out and set up an expectation that wasn’t borne out.  (Now I’d like to see the performances directed by Nelson at the Public Theater in New York City so I can see how he staged this bit.)

Except for the surrealistic dim-outs both in the opening sequence and the later dialogue scenes, Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting is essentially realistic, a realistic indoor scene.  Helen Huang’s costumes are also appropriately current, precisely what I’d expect middle-aged, middle-class people to be wearing on a fall evening in 2010 in a town like Rhinebeck, a town of about 8,000 residents who resent how “New Yorkers” come to look at the locals and their habitat as if it were a theme park.  Two sisters are, after all, school teachers, the third an academic writer, and the brother a (now corporate) lawyer—these aren’t flashy people.  Casual but respectable—and that’s how they all looked (even actor Tim and former actor Benjamin).

The acting is in the same vein—no one (meaning the characters in this case) stands out, steals the focus, takes the stage (again, not even the actors in the group).  I’ve seen a lot of ensemble productions recently, and this is another in that line, and excellently executed by both the cast and the director.  I’ll say a few things about the writing in a bit, but all the actors depict a family, with all its closeness, familiarity, and fissures, who all know each other up and down, know the buttons to push (and not to, as Barbara warns Richard about Marian right at the beginning)  Uncle Benjamin is often lost, as his memory, which comes and goes, fails and Tim, the outsider in the gathering, behaves like a man who wants to make a good impression for the sake of Jane but has his own personality and thoughts—polite, without being obsequious.  (He engages Benjamin in a conversation about acting that shows what a stage master the older man must have been, and even asks Benjamin what his amnesia is like—not a topic I’d expect a guest to raise—because the young actor has a theory that “great acting is simply willed amnesia.”)  If it weren’t for politics, not a taboo subject in this family but a hot one, the Apples and their circle would be . . . well, boring.  Of course, I mean “normal,” but not many dramatists write plays about people like that.

When I see a show like this one in which the whole cast works as a unit, I often don’t single out actors by name, but this work was so good in that way, I want at least to name the performers for the record.  Brother Richard is portrayed by graying, already-paunchy Rick Foucheux as somewhat irascible and somewhat defensive (he’s leaving the family political cocoon for Republican-lite—Javits Republicanism, as he says, which his sisters point out doesn’t exist anymore); Uncle Benjamin, as I’ve already noted, is D.C. stage stalwart van Griethuysen, very convincingly in and out of focus—an active, engaged mien switching instantly to a vacant, lost gaze as he concentrates on the food on his plate; sister Barbara is played by Sarah Marshall, a matronly, soft-voiced mollifier, obviously the peacemaker among the Apples who also takes care of Benjamin—the mother-figure of the family group; sister Marian is depicted by Elizabeth Pierotti as a militant liberal who brooks no deviation from the party line and whose advice to anyone who isn’t sure how to vote just to be sure to vote for the Democrat—even if you don’t know who the candidate is; baby sister Jane is Kimberly Schraf, also the intellectual of the family who’s writing a book on manners and etiquette as a form of cultural and societal infrastructure; and Tim, the actor whom Jane has brought home to meet her family, is played by Jeremy Webb with clear avidness both to be well-received and to cultivate Benjamin whom he’d seen read Oscar Wilde some months earlier at the 92nd Street Y—Tim’s giving a performance, but a very good one that seems natural even as it’s controlled and scored.  (A note: one of the hardest roles for an actor is to play an actor.  A good actor playing a bad one is difficult, but a good actor playing a good one is even harder because the role-playing actor has to let the audience know he’s performing without the actor-as-role being obvious about it at the same time.  It’s a complete paradox—to show he’s acting without showing he’s acting!)  While each of the characters has her or his individual quirks and foibles, none of the actors displays tics or mannerisms and the cast and director Seiden have avoided histrionics and empty emotionalism, letting the feathers fly only when dramatically necessary.  As far as Nelson lets them, they turn in honest, grounded, and believable characters. 

It may be that the cast and director’s being so good at what they’re doing in Hopey Changey is why the faults in Nelson’s script show up so clearly.  (Or maybe I’m hypercritical—these plays have gotten great reviews since they began appearing, including the two in rep at the Studio.)  I broached the notion that Hopey Changey was set up, a characteristic that was most prominent at the beginning of the play, but suffused the whole script.  (I considered if this perception was caused by the performance, but I concluded that it’s endemic in Nelson’s text, though I’d be curious, again, to see how it comes out in his staging at the Public.)  What I mean is that the situation not only of the evening depicted in Hopey Changey but the whole circumstance of the Apple siblings as Nelson seems to be laying it out in the four plays is arranged.  Now, maybe it’s necessary to do that in this first script so that the others can link up logically and narratively.  (From the evidence of Hopey Changey, by the way, though it may be more satisfying to see all four plays, the coherence of one doesn’t depend on seeing the other three.  That may become less apparent in the later plays, however.)  First of all, the characters are very precisely constructed, like pieces in a puzzle, so that they can interact in the ways Nelson has worked out for them.  If, as the feminists of the ’60s and ’70s liked to insists, “the personal is political,” the first Apple Family Play (and probably all of them) is a self-conscious study in the political as personal.  Marian, for instance, is the rabid liberal/Democrat so she has to react strongly to Richard’s sliding toward conservatism.  (I have no evidence of this, but I suspect that Richard Apple, the disillusioned liberal who perceives the hollowness of the political divide, is a stand-in for Richard Nelson.  His bitterness—the nasty, vulgar jokes, the pointed remarks about Democratic politicians, the quasi defense of Sarah Palin—may be Nelson’s, or perhaps what the writer sees ahead for himself.)  The play opens with Richard delivering the very vulgar punch line to a joke about Senators Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, and Barbara even warns him not to repeat the joke to Marian when she arrives.  (He, of course, does, and it sets her off predictably.)  In addition, Richard has taken a position with a big law firm for the money, a direct contrast with his sisters—a writer and two school teachers: not professions people go into for the pay scale.  Jane is the academic and writer (though we do learn that Barbara wrote some fiction years ago) so that she can stick out in a family of pragmatists and political idealists and be the foil for their lack of understanding when she tries to explain her work, which immediately makes Barbara feel as if she’s being studied as a subject for the book.  Her study of manners as the way we reveal or hide who we are and what we really think is a reflection of what Nelson’s doing with a play about eating and communing with family.  It’s also very convenient that Tim is an actor—just like the failing Benjamin.  The characters’ personalities and interests are all very carefully established pretty quickly and definitively and they all hew to expectations for those traits. 

The situation, of course, is also made to order for family conflict: election night when the Republicans take over the House of Representatives and almost the Senate as well.  Marian is enough of the committed Democrat that she’s been poll-watching in town, making her late to the family dinner; her unseen husband is still at the polling place.  Yet Jane eventually reveals that she didn’t vote (though she would have voted for Cuomo and Gillibrand, she says), offering flimsy excuses.  On the larger canvas, Benjamin’s come-and-go memory will clearly get worse as the story advances year to year—and what could be worse for an actor than to lose his memory.  Richard will probably get more and more conservative—he’s already arguing with Marian that the Democrats are no better than the Republicans anyway—and be drawn by his new colleagues further and further into the Republican camp.  “Since when has not being worse,” he challenges Marian, “become who we are?”  Late in Hopey Changey Barbara and Marian disclose that their father had run off when they were children—Jane was too young to remember much—and that Uncle Benjamin took up the slack and looked after them, but they’ve never learned why his brother left and now that his memory is dissolving, they fear they never will.  I predict this will be a recurring topic, probably growing in importance in the succeeding plays, but it’s pretty baldly dropped into this script like a little bomb—a time bomb, I guess.  And that suggests what’s perhaps the biggest set-up of all: the play has no conclusion.  The conversation, the arguments, just stop and everyone goes home.  (These politically addicted siblings don’t even listen to the returns, though Barbara keeps suggesting that.)  It’s open-ended so the next play can dovetail from this one, and the next from that one, and so on.

I’ve only seen a few of Richard Nelson’s plays, and the only one of which I have any recollection is Some Americans Abroad, which I saw at Lincoln Center in 1990, and I have very little impression of it 23 years later, except that I found it rather dry and cold.  Obviously, Nelson never became a playwright whose work I made a point of catching, and I suggest that the reason is the sense I’ve tried to outline concerning That Hopey Changey Thing.  (By the way, the play’s title, for those who lived under a rock from 2008 through 2010, is an allusion to something Sarah Palin said in a speech on 27 March 2010, seven months before the play is set, at a Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nevada—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hometown: “That bumper sticker that maybe you’ll see on the next Subaru driving by—an Obama bumper sticker—you should stop the driver and say, ‘So how is that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?’”  Palin gets a brief mention in the play, and the mockery of Obama isn’t cited, which strikes me as another kind of set-up—using a semi-recognizable line that has no direct applicability to the play.) 

Nelson’s dramaturgy seems so deliberately constructed, so preconceived, that I just don’t find his plays moving.  They’re more intellectual exercises for me—for instance, in Hopey Changey, trying to keep track of all the references and allusions to New York State politics of three years ago.  Andrew Cuomo’s full name is mentioned early in the play, but thereafter, he’s always called just “Andrew,” and former-Governor Eliot Spitzer is only called “Eliot”—and I kept wondering how many in the Washington audience got that.  Washingtonians are attuned to politics, of course—it’s a supremely political town, after all—but not necessarily New York state politics.  There’s also a quick mention of Spitzer’s short-lived talk show on CNN, Parker Spitzer, a month old at the time the play takes place, and I wondered about that, too.  There were many more obscure references to New York politics as well, especially about Albany and the state’s infantile political structure and hidebound government.  This is not the stuff of national headlines for the most part—it’s inside baseball to which most New Yorkers don’t even pay attention!  Indeed, Nelson himself must have had an inkling of this difficulty since he’d initially dubbed Hopey Changey “a disposable play” because he figured audiences on its first outing in November 2010 would be interested, but that it wouldn’t mean much to subsequent theatergoers. 

I said the press was strongly positive, and the Washington Post led the pack by opening its review with: “Give thanks this week that the Apples fall among us.”  Peter Marks calls the two-play rep “without question a capital occasion” and declares that the plays “are, in a quiet way, thrilling.”  He feels that “the playwright’s generosity of spirit allows an audience to feel as if it, too, always has a place at his table.”  In Washingtonian magazine, Missy Frederick, calling the play “engrossing,” writes that the play eventually becomes “a bracing critique of the current administration, but it happens in a way that just feels like people sitting around, gradually spitting out their pent-up frustrations and realizations” so that “it feels realistic, like the audience is spying on an actual conversation.” “It takes some time to get to that point,” Frederick advises, “but it’s worth the wait.”  “As directed with great sensitivity by Serge Seiden,” writes Chris Klimek in the Washington City Paper, “these plays are so patient and closely observed that the emotional hold they assert over you is insidious.”  The reviewer admits to having been mostly “entranced” and “captivated,” though he’s “still trying to work out exactly why.”  Klimek’s final remark about the Apple family seems also to be his conclusion about the plays: “They’re slow burners, . . . but their effects are lasting.”

On the website MD Theatre Guide, Robert Michael Oliver (who actually draws a parallel between Nelson’s plays and the work of radical South American theater innovator Augusto Boal), declares, “That Hopey Changey Thing offers us a chance to hear ourselves talk to ourselves about our political hopes and anxieties.”  “After watching the Apple Family Plays,” writes Oliver, “you leave the theatre feeling like you have attended someone’s family dinner, with . . .  the ideas quite satisfying.”  He believes the plays, which he dubs “inquisitive, investigative, insightful,” are so provocative that as you leave the theater you’ll ask yourself, “[W]hy haven’t I thought of that before?  Why haven’t I asked that question before?”  With respect to the performances, Oliver states that the “ensemble of superior thespians serves Nelson’s script to perfection.“  DC Theatre Scene’s Ben Demers complains that he “became increasingly frustrated as the family members repeatedly ran over each other in conversation” as none of them were able to finish a thought to Demers’s satisfaction.  Nonetheless, the reviewer finds, “The pleasant veneer of setdesigner [sic] Debra Booth’s cozy dining room conceals buried doubts and resentments, which slowly emerge as the wine begins to flow.”  Demers also feels that “Director Serge Seiden has skillfully delved into Nelson’s script, managing a slate of fine performances” though in the end, he found that although the play raised questions for him, “The overall message of That Hopey Changey Thing is unclear.”  On DC Metro Theatre Arts, Sydney-Chanele Dawkins calls the play “an engrossing slice of family life populated by challenging, complex, ordinary people full of American pie appeal.”  The plays respond, Dawkins writes, “to rich, universal themes, intelligent story subtext, and the focus of idiosyncratic character motivation” and “resonate with eye-opening relevancy and a remarkable immediacy in a powerfully irresistible way.”    Especially complimenting the “extraordinary” finesse of the cast’s “listening skills,” the review-writer also notes the “moving, dynamic interactions and the fresh, riveting performances” of the company. 

It seems, at least as the professional reviewers go, I’m a minority of one.  I agree pretty much across the board with the estimation of the journalists concerning the work of the Studio Theatre’s company; in fact, their work was exemplary in all respects.  But I’m just not as enthusiastic about the play as most of the published reviewers are.  Maybe I’ve become jaded, or the Capital area writers don’t get to see as much quality theater as I do—but I don’t feel the impact they seems to or see the import of Nelson’s themes that they do.  Given that there is this dichotomy of opinion, I suppose it’s fair to say that you all will just have to decide for yourselves if The Apple Family Plays are your kind of theater or not.  Then again, that’s pretty much always the case, isn’t it?

In any case, I also have to confess that I’m glad I saw this production; since the Apple plays have been so well reviewed and so popular with theaters, I feel it’s worthwhile to have experienced at least one of them, particularly in such an exemplary presentation.  I expressed a curiosity about Nelson’s own staging of the plays, currently on stage at New York’s  Public Theater as I reported, but I probably won’t see them.  I’m not curious enough to want to sit through another performance of the same play, and I’m not enamored enough of the whole work to want to sit through the other three just to see what the playwright’s done with them.  If someone donates tickets for me, I might change my mind on that, however.

No comments:

Post a Comment