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Theatre in Review: What Happened? The Michaels Abroad (Hunter Theatre Project)

Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett. Photo: Jason Ardizzone-West

Is it really over? For more than a decade, Richard Nelson has chronicled the fortunes of three Rhinebeck, New York families -- the Apples, the Gabriels, and the Michaels -- creating an ever-expanding portrait of an aging, liberal middle class adrift in a society that no longer recognizes its values. Each new piece has felt like a cool blast of civilization in a world gone mad. Nelson says the current entry completes what is known as his Rhinebeck Panorama. This is one loss I'm not sure I can live with.

The final Rhinebeck installment is also the second play about the Michaels, a mildly bohemian clan, and their friends, and it finds them far from home and at loose ends. What Happened? is a sort of ghost play, dominated by the memory of Rose Michael, a modern dance choreographer and icon of a now-vanished downtown performing arts scene. Like many polarizing personalities, the unflinchingly honest Rose existed at the center of a circle of collaborators, lovers, and acolytes, all of whom continue to dwell in her shadow.

Lucy, Rose's daughter, also a choreographer, went to France for a residency, ending up stranded there when the COVID lockdown began, leaving her separated from her dying mother. The others have gathered for a festival in Angers, where Lucy's work is featured. They include Kate, Rose's late-in-life spouse; David, Rose's ex-husband and former company manager; Sally, David's wife; May, Rose's niece, also a dancer; Irenie, an administrator at Gibney Dance Studios in Manhattan; and Suzanne, a dance teacher. Sally, Irenie, and Suzanne were once members of Rose's troupe. In addition to Rose, two other offstage characters haunt the stage: Alice, Rose's longtime partner, now deceased, and Jacques Fran├žois, Suzanne's selfish brother -- another ex-dancer with ties to Rose -- who has rashly, in middle age, made a misalliance with an unsympathetic Italian woman.

As usual, very little happens -- Nelson is our most Chekhovian playwright, and his Rhinebeck plays are rather like novellas for the stage -- but there's plenty to catch up on as everyone's lives have been upended by the pandemic. Lucy is gutted over missing her mother's last days; David and Sally have been financially devastated and are looking at starting over in Utica. Irenie has faced the isolation of lockdown with only a pet dog for companionship. Suzanne, who cared for Jacques Fran├žois as if he were her child, feels abandoned by him and wonders what's next.

As everyone gather around the dinner table, Nelson richly evokes a sense of changing times and altered -- often diminishing -- circumstances, beautifully articulated by a cast who wear their characters like old clothes. Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, who have been part of the Rhinebeck Panorama since the beginning, are, once again, essential. Sanders is infinitely touching as David, on unemployment for the first time at 69, aching for a return to live performance, and anxiously wondering if he has unintentionally contributed to a "white theatre" that ignores the needs of minority artists and workers. (He is talking about a colleague, but, clearly, he also speaks for himself.) Plunkett's Kate, with her profound acceptance of grief, sensitively delivers a quietly devastating account of Rose's decline. She also carefully doles out family revelations that have the unexpected power to wound. As the finale demonstrates, she has an unparalleled ability to hold the stage in silence.

There are also first-rate contributions from Rita Wolf as the no-nonsense, plain-talking Sally; Haviland Morris, who inflects each line with a rueful, humorous twist; and Yvonne Woods as Suzanne, artfully evading any question about her deeper feelings. Charlotte Bydwell captures Lucy's tug-of-war with her mother's memory, especially in a startling emotional outburst when signing papers to sell her childhood home. She and Matilda Sakamoto, as May, perform several delightful dance pieces -- ostensibly Rose's, but adapted, with the help of dance consultant Gwyneth Jones, from the work of Dan Wagoner -- that underscore Nelson's point about the healing power of art.

These dances also point to the play's subterranean main action, in which Lucy -- who loves Rose and resents her influence, fighting and embracing her legacy -- makes her mother's work her own, taking her first step into the void left by her death.

Nelson's designers -- Jason Ardizzone-West (scenery), Jennifer Tipton (lighting), and Susan Hilferty (costumes) -- make their usual finely understated contributions. Sound designer Will Pickens makes some especially apt musical choices, including Katie Herzig's "Lost and Found" for the opening, and, to support Lucy's dances, Maxine Sullivan singing "Miss Otis Regrets," David Allan Coe's "West Virginia Man," and Spike Jones' peerlessly zany take on "Cocktails for Two."

The sorrows accrue in What Happened?, and the world seems to grow more perilous and confusing. And yet, as always, the play ends with a profound embrace of the world. Irenie, who has taken advantage of lockdown to finally read War and Peace, quotes the character of Pierre, who says, "As long as there's life, there's happiness. There's much, much still to come." These words could serve as an epigraph to the entire dramatic cycle. Anytime Richard Nelson wants to book a return trip to Rhinebeck, count me in. --David Barbour

(10 September 2021)

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