The worst, and most common, insult a critic typically levels at a play is that it resembles a TV series. But at its best, television gives us the time to understand a character more deeply than most theater, and allows us to see that character grow – or at least change over time.
Richard Nelson’s series of plays at the Public Theater about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York –2010’s “Sweet and Sad,” 2011’s “That Hopey Changey Thing,” and now “Sorry” — come the closest I can think of to establishing this kind of long-term connection between a theater audience and a set of characters, always played by the same cast. My hope is that what Nelson is doing as both playwright and director inspires other theatermakers.
All three plays have a central gimmick. Each show opened on the day they are supposed to take place, and that day has political significance – the first play takes place on Election Day 2010; the second on the 10th anniversary of 9/11; “Sorry” takes place from about 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on November 6, 2012 – Election Day. It is subtitled “Conversations on Election Day” and it unfolds in real time.
Most critics who saw this show, and raved about it, attended that opening night performance, with all the attendant electricity of witnessing such a specially-tailored live moment — which is something that theater does well.
I was invited only after its second extension – it will now close December 2nd – and my effort to fight the feeling of showing up for New Year’s Eve on January 2nd wasn’t helped by a sudden interruption and distraction; a member of the audience fell suddenly ill at this particular performance, and the show stopped for about ten minutes.
Yet I too was taken by the experience of gathering with Richard and his three sisters in his sister Barbara’s home in Rhinebeck, an hour’s drive from Manhattan, on the day not just when the nation was electing a president but that the Apple family was taking their uncle to a nursing home. On the surface, there is little going on here that wouldn’t be happening on an ordinary day in any family. Nobody would mistake “Sorry” for an episode of “The Sopranos.” Somebody’s working on a puzzle, the sisters at one point sing a song together, the brother tells a story about the unhappy 19th century presidency of Franklin Pierce. They take turns reading from a fat book entitled “A History of Private Life.” They talk about the hurricane (Nelson was reportedly rewriting up until the day of the opening, to keep it realistically current.)
There is a subtle craft at play here. What’s happening only seems random. When the sisters sing, for example, it is an example of something called “shape-note singing” which, one of them tells the others, the pioneers did in the wilderness, singing in a circle, everybody participating, “to ward off any evil” – much like the family is doing now in a way. When they read from “A History of Private Life,” the characters are telling us what the playwright is trying to do with “Sorry” – reveal the impact of so-called historical events on the everyday lives of ordinary people. Such lives are normally hidden, simply because nobody is interested. But Nelson seems to be saying there is more meaning and importance in these lives than in the great public events that affect them.
So, yes, eventually the characters do talk about the presidential election, in roughly the proportion they might in real life – no more than 20 minutes in a play that lasts two hours. Samples:
Jane: I tell myself – and try to convince myself – that voting is like – recycling. I know it doesn’t seem to make any difference… But for that second, when you’re throwing something in the recycling trash, you can feel like you’re part of something greater than yourself….
Richard: Do we know what we’re rooting for? I think we know what we’re rooting against….
Marian: I want to be more than just disappointed….
Barbara: …I sort of stopped paying attention a while back. Sorry
Richard even makes some astute comments about Governor Cuomo’s ambition.
What makes “Sorry” a special event even when not on a special day is the feeling that the five actors on stage are living their roles. Maryann Plunkett as Barbara is the oldest sibling, burdened with caring for her uncle, scared of his dementia but too guilt-ridden to admit this. She and J. Smith-Cameron as Jane, a writer in Manhattan, and Laila Robins as Marian, whose daughter committed suicide, seem completely credible as sisters. John DeVries plays the uncle, a once nearly-famous actor now losing both his memory and his inhibitions, so persuasively that it was both a shock and an irony to see him take the lead in looking after the audience member who had taken ill. Jay O. Sanders is riveting as the brother, a somewhat spoiled lawyer who used to work in state government. He has the best anecdotes to tell – not just the odd story of Franklin Pierce’s calamitous presidency; a story both funny and deep about goldfish in a toilet tank in England: Every time somebody flushes, most of the water swirls out and the goldfish huddle together and “you could see a real consternation on their faces”; then the water comes back and they looked relieved.
“That’s how it is going to be like on election night. Hope… and change.”
I get what Richard Nelson is doing, the hints of Chekhov (they even say at one point “I want to go to New York City”), and still think “Sorry” could stand to be trimmed by a half hour. But I look forward eagerly to the fourth play in the series, scheduled for November 22, 2013 – the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
At The Public Theater
Written and directed by Richard Nelson; sets and costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; sound by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens
Cast: Jon DeVries (Benjamin Apple), Maryann Plunkett (Barbara Apple), Laila Robins (Marian Apple), Jay O. Sanders (Richard Apple) and J. Smith-Cameron (Jane Apple Halls).
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
Sorry is extended twice and will now close on December 2.