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Theatre in Review: The Michaels (The Public Theater)

Rita Wolf, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Haviland Morris. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once again, we are in a kitchen in Rhinebeck, New York, eavesdropping; it's a wonderful place to be. The Michaels is the latest entry in what the Public is now calling playwright Richard Nelson's Rhinebeck Panorama, a series of dramas set in the upstate town, often tied to current events, focusing on intensively detailed portraits of middle-class families with liberal values, roiled by tumultuous times. As far as I'm concerned, he can keep adding new panels to this gorgeous mural for as long as he wants.

Following the Apple and Gabriel families, the subjects of previous cycles, The Michaels introduces us to an entirely new clan. Rose Michael, an aging modern dance choreographer, is struggling to face the ovarian cancer that threatens her life. David, her ex-husband, an arts manager and producer, lives next door with his wife, Sally, formerly of Rose's company and now the proprietor of a local dance studio; they keep an eye on Rose, to the extent that she will allow it. Lucy, Rose and David's daughter, is on hand, preparing to present some of her mother's works at a local festival, along with May, Rose's niece, another dancer. Also in attendance are Irenie, who performed Rose's dances with Sally, and Kate, a retired high school history teacher who, only recently, has become romantically involved with Rose.

It's a cliché to say about plays of this sort that nothing happens and yet everything happens, but that about sums up The Michaels, which is filled with many profound moments of recognition, most of them quietly, even stoically, received. Nelson, who gives each of these plays the density of a fine novel, sketches in a richly complicated background involving Rose and David's failed marriage; Rose's long relationship with her former lover, Alice, now dead of cancer; Rose's years spent working with Sally and Irenie; and Rose's not-entirely happy youth, tied to a family-owned motel in Utica. The adjoining houses where Rose, David, and Sally live are on the site of a defunct "secular Yiddish summer camp for kids" to which at least one character has a prior connection. Looking to the future, this mostly bohemian band fears being priced out of Rhinebeck, once a charming country village and now a magnet for wealthy New Yorkers seeking a cozy weekend getaway. A sighting of the CNN news personality Van Jones is seen as a baleful omen: The celebrities are coming.

Nelson weaves his characters into a complex tangle of love, loss, memory, and responsibility. Lucy, a gifted dancer, wants to turn down a residency in France to tend to her mother -- a move Rose fiercely opposes. May is being pulled by her mother back to that motel in Utica, where the others fear her talent will wither for lack of opportunity. Kate, who initially fled upon hearing of Rose's illness -- and who has a better offer from her ex-lover -- is quietly managing more and more of Rose's life; as everyone knows, it's a job that won't get smaller. Rose insists on managing her illness with all-night research sessions on her laptop, yet she closely guards the details of her treatment, even leaving Kate in the dark. Most of this information is revealed elliptically, in passing, or without reaching a conclusion; you have to listen very closely to the characters, gathering the many bits of information that give the play such a documentary authenticity.

Less about contemporary politics and more a consideration of time's evanescence and the many forms that devotion takes, The Michaels finds Nelson in an uncommonly elegiac mood. Lucy hauls out boxes of Rose's papers for a display at the dance festival; this cues memories of Merce Cunningham, Tricia Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Anna Halprin, evoking an entire vanished world of the pregentrified Downtown Manhattan art scene. In an especially delicious moment, David recalls Rose's five-and-a-half-hour piece, based on the Chantal Akerman film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, a plotless study of a prostitute's domestic existence. (The film isn't named but it's unmistakable; Rose's creation is the sort of ambitious work, utterly indifferent to the needs of the audience, that is as vanished as the dodo.) By the end of the performance, David notes, there were only three audience members left, adding, "They all still send Christmas cards."

At the same time, darker notes are quietly being sounded. Rose is furious about losing a chance to create a large-scale new work, a commission withdrawn by a friend concerned about her declining health. Kate prods Rose to tell the story of her guest appearance at a local book club, where, in response to a movie viewed by the group, she, for the first time, said aloud, "I am dying." Irenie recalls meeting a former colleague who didn't recognize her; her old colleague cuts a forlorn figure, standing in the hall at a dance center, watching young people in rehearsal. Kate, who tutors immigrants, passes around photos of a family at a citizenship ceremony, and David talks about a Dutch dance troupe whose tour was cancelled because a company member couldn't get a US visa. Sally frets about losing her dance studio, thanks to escalating rents, and the impossibility of finding an affordable meal in Rhinebeck. And a notebook is produced in which Rose details her funeral plans.

And yet, as the losses mount, life has a way of going on: Dinner is prepared, conversation continues (often wittily), and Lucy and May perform two of Rose's dances -- in the kitchen -- under Rose's watchful eye. Revealing that one piece is in part about her youthful sibling conflicts, Rose tells the startled May, "You're your mother." Having spent their most vigorous years fiercely pursuing the cause of art, Rose and company have aged into a much-less-hospitable world, defined by money and dubious models of success. But the work exists -- and still the quiche must be prepared, the wine opened, and plans made for the end of life.

The company assembled by Nelson is a mix of old and new faces blended into a cohesive ensemble. In some ways, the play is dominated by Brenda Wehle's Rose, flinty and fearless in the face of her demise and determined to keep going until the last possible moment. Jay O. Sanders' David is a relaxed and amusing presence, especially when making himself the butt of a joke about a forced appearance onstage -- but his love for these women is evident, no more so than when urging Lucy not to surrender her future. Maryann Plunkett's knack for the unspoken comment is put to excellent use as Kate, who is thoroughly unsentimental, even matter of fact, about standing at a major crossroads in her life. As Sally and Irenie, Rita Wolf and Haviland Morris are affable raconteurs of their past careers and acute observers of Rose's present. Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Sakamoto dance fluently as Lucy and May, each giving her character a lovely throwaway sense of humor. (The dances are based on original choreography by Dan Wagoner.)

As with the other Rhinebeck plays, Jason Ardizzone-West's lived-in kitchen set is a ragtag collection of mismatched furniture, gracefully lit by Jennifer Tipton. The costume designers, Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss, share a sharp eye for character. Scott Lehrer's sound design makes good use of Katie Herzig's "Best Day of Your Life" to open and close the play; he also provides subtle aural sweetening to facilitate the ultra-naturalistic acting style favored by the playwright, and the sounds of exhalation that punctuate each scene.

The Michaels doesn't rise to a dramatic climax: The meal is finished, and everyone gradually disperses, with much still to be decided; the future is, if anything, more unresolved than ever. And yet, after two hours, one feels intimately acquainted with, and surprisingly affectionate toward, these bemused Rhinebeckers. Delicately wrought and hard as a rock, The Michaels seduces with the details, caught on the fly, of lives well-lived in spite of everything. The play, subtitled, "Conversations During Difficult Times," is a balm for troubled spirits. --David Barbour

(29 October 2019)

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