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Theatre in Review: What Did You Expect? (The Public Theater)

Amy Warren, Jay O. Sanders. Photo: Joan Marcus

The newspapers, airwaves, and Internet are so full of reports trying to explain how this country got into its current predicament that, really, you could spend all day trying to take them in. But more and more, I'm relying on Richard Nelson and his serial plays about middle-class families in Rhinebeck, New York, to understand what is happening to us. (Conceived to take place on key nights in an election cycle, they are rewritten right up to opening night, in order to mirror current events.) Nelson has gotten so adept at taking the temperature of these times that I wish Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, would invite both houses of Congress to see these plays; maybe then we'd get a sensible bill or two passed.

What Did You Expect? is our second visit with the Gabriels, and the question is an apt, if saddening, one, for all of them are seeking safe ground in an era of disruptive change and diminishing hopes. Mary Gabriel, a doctor by training, is still struggling to adjust following the death of her husband, Thomas, a noted playwright. Mary let her medical license lapse, and, as she plans a move to Pittsburgh, has no idea what the future may hold. Patricia, Thomas' mother, has recently moved to an assisted living facility but, thanks to some misguided, and rather murky, business decisions, finds herself saddled with crushing debt. George, her son, and Hannah, his wife, are willing to do what it takes to bail her out -- but he is a piano teacher and cabinetmaker and she works for a caterer, so they may have to dip into their son's college fund, as they have no real savings of their own. In order to economize, George, Hannah, and Patricia may be moving in with Mary. Help will not be forthcoming from Joyce, George's sister, who works as an associate costume designer and barely pays her own bills. Things have become sufficiently desperate that Karin, Thomas' first wife, an actress and teacher who has become an unofficial member of the family, is methodically working her way through his papers, looking for any documents -- a letter from a celebrity, for example -- that might be sold for ready cash.

Thus, the Gabriels, a clan largely made up of artists and artisans, are at sea in a country that neither values their work nor provides them with security. Even more galling, the town that most of them have called home for decades is being swallowed up by a new merchant class of Wall Street traders and financiers looking for adorable weekend homes. Hannah, the most practical of the Gabriels, partly because she has only her day job, particularly feels the sting of having to serve up finger food to millionaires who can't be bothered to look her in the eye. She is especially scornful of George's so-called friendship with one of these invaders, but, in truth, George's motivations are intriguingly mixed: He insists he enjoys his new friend's company, but he also believes that he can get enough cabinetry work from him to see the family through the winter. Even Joyce is reduced to being a glorified cater-waiter at her wealthy bosses' elaborate political fundraisers. So does a group of accomplished adults end up perilously close to being little better than household help.

The fate of the Gabriels is rendered without hysteria or speechmaking -- indeed, according to Nelson's critics, without anything like drama. But if you listen closely to them as they occupy Mary's kitchen, preparing an evening meal as well as dishes for a picnic the next day, you'll feel the pressure they're under, their collective sense that shadows are gathering nearer, ready to engulf them. George is planning on selling his piano, a move that will force him to visit his students for their lessons. Joyce, who is visiting, is so increasingly at her employers' beck and call that she can't manage to stay the night. Hannah is increasingly bitter and scornful about having to scrape together a living. Patricia, who may or may not be addled with age, can't account for how she lost all her money. When asked about it, she replies in simple, yet steely fashion, "I don't know."

Under Nelson's direction, his company has perfected a low-key, highly naturalistic acting style -- it's more like film acting -- that perfectly suits the novelistic detail of his writing. The Gabriels can be enjoyed simply for an ensemble so seamless that you often feel like you are eavesdropping on old friends. Maryann Plunkett captures Mary's take-charge qualities, as well as her need to bury herself in activity; left alone in the kitchen, she communicates with a single glance how thoroughly grief has left her paralyzed. As George, Jay O. Sanders is an old hand at wringing irony from a line ("What the hell ever happened to interest from a bank?"), but there's something terribly touching about his can-do attitude -- how, against the odds, he is determined to see his family through this crisis. Lynn Hawley, as Hannah, is a tart presence, her time-is-money attitude a strong counterpoint to George's naturally generous behavior; she also offers some withering assessments of George's "rich friend and his rich friend's rich friends," and their picnic, which is designed to memorialize the first, and possibly fateful, meeting between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne; the indulgence of this little outing stands in stark contrast to the hard choices being made in the Gabriel home. Amy Warren's rather flighty Joyce amuses with her tales of serving drinks to billionaires. Meg Gibson's soulful, highly simpatico Karin introduces a note of melancholy reminiscence with her memories of the theatre and life with Thomas. Once again, Roberta Maxwell's Patricia is the slipperiest character, one minute a confused old lady, the next earning a gasp from the audience with a casually cruel remark to her daughter ("You'd understand better if you had children, Joyce").

The Gabriel plays hardly require splashy production values, but there is something lovely and precise in the kitchen set by Susan HiIferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, which includes several working appliances (you'll smell the potato salad and guacamole being prepared), as well as Hilferty's costumes, Jennifer Tipton's lighting, and the sound design of Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens, which includes apt use of "Don't Just Sit there," by the indie-pop band Lucius.

Needless to say, the Gabriels are quietly terrified at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, which is why it's good to have Nelson remind us that more than one subset of the American public feels disenfranchised and fearful of the future. On one level, What Did You Expect? is about, as George says, talking about Melville and Hawthorne, "how America tames its artists." On another level, it's about this tense, restless, fearful moment in our collective history. The next Gabriel play opens in November, on election night; God only knows what's in store for them, and for us. -- David Barbour

(4 October 2016)

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