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Theatre in Review: Pictures from Home (Studio 54)

Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker, Nathan Lane. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

We rarely get dramatic vehicles anymore, more's the pity. I don't mean Jessica Chastain tackling A Doll's House or Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke in Death of a Salesman; any season is loaded with stars testing their mettle in classics. But what about contemporary plays that exist to show off their leading players? Admittedly, such works have a way of vanishing from memory; with them, the play is rarely, if ever, the thing. But audiences of yore who put down money to see The Lunts in The Great Sebastians or Julie Harris in Forty Carats or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in Foxfire or The Petition knew what they were getting, and they rarely had anything to complain about.

This is why it's such a surprise to see Pictures from Home, an old-fashioned vehicle of the first order. I have no idea if playwright Sharr White conceived his family comedy for Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, and Zoë Wanamaker, but he has certainly given them the opportunity to work their special brands of magic. Indeed, one has to wonder if the play's fractious trio of characters would be nearly as entertaining if played by anyone else.

The evening -- you won't be surprised to hear -- is dominated by Lane as Irv, a former LA-based Schick razor executive who, bored by retirement, dwells in a constant state of ire. We first see him, his eyes shaded by sunglasses, holding a golf club like a weapon, awaiting another trial to his limited patience. Dismissing the stylized work of his photographer son Larry, he snaps, "Let me give you a tip: Look through the view finder. Your camera will tell you the exposure to use." Explaining his refusal to do charitable work, he mutters, "You can't be competitive" with the other volunteers. Overriding Larry's fears about his parents' imminent move to Palm Desert, he says, bluntly, "You know why you're threatened by our retirement? Retirement, to you, equals death."

Lane, his finger pointed like a loaded weapon, his voice going up a half-tone with each new outrage, makes Irv into a maestro of grievance. At least once, however, his comic kvetching turns into real fury, betraying a lifetime of frustration that leaves the room in stunned silence. Even so, all he needs is a quarter-turn of his head and a quick moment of silence and, suddenly, we see an old man, frightened of skidding into irrelevance. Never one to coast on his superb comic technique, his work here is blisteringly honest; the actor never apologies for Irv and his abrasive manner.

Wanamaker, dressed by Jennifer Moeller in tropical pinks and oranges, her voice as warm as single-malt scotch, knows better than to compete with Lane's high-decibel approach. Instead, as Jean, Irv's long-suffering wife, she gets her effects in a sneaky, sideways manner: Denying that she and Irv harbor secrets, she adds, oh so casually, "I mean... we have plenty of things we wouldn't talk about in a million years. But those aren't secrets." Having entered the real estate workforce just as Irv was leaving his career behind, she quietly admits she might have called herself "the greatest saleswoman on earth," adding, by way of correction, that she made eighteen million dollars -- not twelve, mind you -- in her first year. During yet another family skirmish, Irv insists that Jean is on his side. "Don't be so sure," Wanamaker grumbles, underscoring her muted fury by intently chopping some vegetables.

Presiding over this menagerie of two is Burstein, who exists at a perpetual disadvantage with hits bustling, bumptious parents. "Stepping inside these walls is my Kryptonite," Larry remarks and it's easy to see why, given Irv's constant undermining and Jean's what-can-you-do-with-him attitude. Still, he's a charmer; launching into a speech about his exasperating mom and dad, he pauses and, taking us in with a beatific smile, adds, "Also, hi." But he also reveals his malicious side in a father-and-son battle over control of the barbecue grill, surreptitiously stuffing hamburgers with the onions that Irv detests; in this case, revenge is a dish best served medium rare.

Burstein's geniality is most welcome, especially because White tends to worry Pictures from Home's premise, based on Larry Sultan's book, without developing it. Like Sultan in real life, Larry has devoted nearly a decade of his life photographing Irv and Jean in situ, seeking out their "life beyond the frame." Specifically, he wants to get behind the faces they present the world -- Irv's successful-businessman façade and Jean's busy-busy manner -- to find traces of vulnerability and sadness. He's also trying to get at the family myth, of Jewish Brooklynites who came west to California, reaping the rewards of life in the postwar era. It's a nebulous project, without an obvious endpoint, requiring him to spend dozens of weekends each year trying to capture them in unguarded moments or staging them in elaborate tableaux. One must wonder what Larry's wife and kids, who remain offstage, feel about this obsessive activity.

White finds plenty of comedy in Larry's quest, especially when Irv, frustrating his son, unconsciously, assumes his standard captain-of-industry pose, or when Irv shows off an old photo of Jean vivaciously shaving her legs like a fashion model in a print ad. But after half a dozen scenes of Larry hectoring his parents, one starts to wonder if Irv doesn't have a point; being forced to constantly accommodate the camera lens can be a trial, especially in one's home. For all their complaints, their tolerance is almost saintly. I kept waiting for them to start shouting, "No paparazzi!"

Pictures from Home is filled with interesting things, for example when Irv recalls his humiliating gig in a men's clothing store -- rechristened "John" and forced to listen to the customers antisemitic remarks -- but it mostly prefers to repeat itself, admittedly to often entertaining effect. Late in the action, when mortality comes calling, it makes a bid for deeper emotional engagement but, despite the stars' considerable skills, the payoff never really comes.

Director Bartlett Sher deftly orchestrates this gifted trio as they step in and out of the action, each wooing the audience with his or her point of view. He has also obtained a slightly eccentric production design about which opinions are likely to be divided. Michael Yeargan's California ranch house interior reaches for a certain stylization but ends up looking strangely underfurnished; it does execute a nifty scene change, however, flying out for an exterior scene, and it also serves as fine surface for the projections by 59 Production, which draw on the Sultan family's real-life photos and movies; whatever the irritations they may have caused, they are stunningly evocative documents of a lost way of life. (In some ways, they recall the suburban California paradise of Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans) Jennifer Tipton's lighting fills the stage with California sunshine while executing many subtle transitions. The sound design, by Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still, includes such key effects as an airplane taking off, piano music, and the voice of Irv on a tape recorder.

Not really a play for the ages, Pictures from Home is, nevertheless, such an delightful display of star techniques and temperaments that it can't help but give pleasure. As Larry admits, one reason for drawing out his project at such length is his conviction that, photographing Irv and Jean, he can keep them alive; thanks to Burstein, Lane, and Wanamaker, all three Sultans attain vivid onstage life. As vehicles go, this is a pretty sleek model. --David Barbour

(23 February 2023)

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