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Theatre in Review: What Do We Need to Talk About? (The Public Theater/YouTube)

Clockwise from upper left: Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, Stephen Kunken. Photo: Joan Marcus

In troubled times, there's nothing like old friends, which is one -- but not the only -- reason why What Do We Need to Talk About? is such a welcome expression of grace. Richard Nelson's play, currently available on the Public's website through Sunday, reconvenes the Apple Family, middle-aged residents of Rhinebeck, New York, for another probing, wide-ranging conversation. As portrayed in four plays staged at the Public between 2010 and 2013, the Apples are middle-class liberals -- most of them artists or educators -- adrift in a contemporary America defined by materialism and the cult of the self. Their lives are marked by disappointment -- and, sometimes, tragedy -- yet they remain remarkably good company, not least for their ability to speak out loud so many of the thoughts currently running through our heads. (You can catch the earlier Apple plays at https://www.thirteen.org/programs/theater-close-up/)

It was an inspired decision to craft another Apple Family play for coronavirus-weary theatre fans. The previous editions reflected current events, with Nelson revising his scripts right up to opening night. As you can imagine, the new work reflects the mess we're all in at the moment. Everyone is back, one way or another. Barbara, the fussy de facto matriarch of the family (Maryann Plunkett, wittily capturing her character's humorless, easily wounded nature) is just out of the hospital, following a bout of COVID-19; Richard (Jay O. Sanders, warm and wise as ever), who works in the governor's office in Albany, is sheltering with her and providing home care. Jane (Sally Murphy, nailing her character's eccentricities), the youngest sibling, is at home with her partner Tim (Stephen Kunken, putting his raconteur skills to good use), but in separate rooms, as he has a mild case of the coronavirus; she is struggling with anxiety, fearful of shopping at the local grocery store even as the house runs low on food. Marian (a perfectly brittle Laila Robins) continues to offer plenty of acid commentary even as she reveals her vulnerability, by suddenly admitting her desire for a cat.

As always, Nelson seamlessly weaves the news into the conversation, not least the recent death of the beloved New York theatre director Mark Blum. Other subjects include the invasion of their community by fleeing New Yorkers, the uncertain fate of the theatre, the new reality of older-adults shopping hours, the precarious future of small businesses, and the pervasive anxiety of a younger generation that has come of age through 9/11, the 2008 crash, and the pandemic. Taking a cue from Barbara, who has been teaching The Decameron to her students, each of them spins a tale: Jane's contribution, which posits scandalous revelations about the little-known British novelist Gladys Huntington, is a corker. Marian, for her part, unearths some fascinating revelations about the family's previous generation.

Family dynamics, acutely observed, are always central to the Apple Family plays. Once again, all three sisters gang up on Richard, who has a big announcement to share. Barbara's ability to take the mildest comment to heart is on full display. And their long-running skill at teasing each other remains untouched by troubled times. The many losses that have touched them -- not least the suicide of a child -- are mentioned, made all the more moving for their unsentimental treatment.

Best of all, Nelson finds a way to bring back Ben, the siblings' uncle, a noted actor who slipped into dementia, ultimately dying in a rest home. Thanks to the gorgeous voice of Jon DeVries, we are given a reprise of his handling of the Walt Whitman poem "The Wound Dresser," a highlight of a previous Apple play, Sweet and Sad. There are plenty of wounds to be dressed in this elegant one-hour piece, but the overall effect is strangely hopeful. As Tim says, "I read somewhere, some writer, he said, 'You can't despair twenty-four hours a day'." Spend an hour with the Apples and you may find your gloom lifting, leaving you feeling surprisingly restored. In a country that sometimes seems to be suffering an empathy drought, the Apples have it, in spades. -- David Barbour


(30 April 2020)

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