If Richard Nelson, the writer and director of “The Michaels,” were hired to direct the next Marvel movie, would Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk sit around the kitchen table in Rhinebeck, New York for two hours talking in barely audible voices about art, death, politics, and their old fights with Loki, while Spider-man bakes a loaf of bread, and the Black Panther takes Wolverine for a walk? That’s been the formula for Nelson’s four Apple Family plays and then his three plays in The Gabriels series, and it’s back once again with “The Michaels,” subtitled “Conversations During Difficult Times,” a play about a family of dancers gathering around a kitchen table in Rhinebeck, New York, which I’m hoping will be a one-off, rather than the first of yet another series.
I was taken by the innovation of the first of the Apple Family plays, which were written and performed in real time on the very day in which they were set, always a day of more or less historical significance. And it’s hard not to be impressed by the cast, which is in effect largely a repertory company, anchored by Jay O. Sanders and Mary Ann Plunkett, who have performed in all eight of these so-called Rhinebeck Panorama plays. But I found the last of “The Gabriels” exasperating, and I’m now hoping that Nelson will move on, or at least hire a no-nonsense dramaturg and a director other than himself.
To be fair, I looked at the audience of “The Michaels” on the night I attended, and nobody looked trapped, even though the show lasts two hours without an intermission and it’s set up in-the-round at the LuEsther theater at the Public, so you can’t leave without walking onto the stage.
There are clearly theatergoers with enough patience and delicate sensibilities to continue to cherish Nelson’s approach – naturalistic conversation, in real time, with small moments of cultural or political insight into The Way We Live Now.
And there are undeniably some such moments in this play that takes place on October 27th, 2019 (the day the play opened) in the house of Rose Michael (Brenda Wehle), a modern choreographer who we eventually discover is dying. Her friends and family spend much time sitting around the kitchen table reminiscing about the dancing life. A highlight of the play is an actual dance performed in the kitchen by Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Sakamoto, who portray Rose’s daughter and niece, that Rose choreographed (actually choreographed by Dan Wagoner.)
In the only direct comment I caught about what’s causing the “difficult times,” Irenie (Haviland Morris), a former dancer in Rose’s company, recalls how a German dancer expressed sympathy with her because Trump was her president: “’I know what it’s like for you Americans now…I had to spend so much of my youth apologizing for my Nazi parents.’”
There are even several moments in “The Michaels” when one can imagine that Nelson is perhaps slyly acknowledging his critics. David Michael (Jay O. Sanders) Rose’s ex-husband and the former manager of her dance company, recalls how Rose created a dance based on a movie “about a woman doing mostly very normal things. She makes a meal, step by step, in real time, very slowly.”
The dance, David says, was five and a half hours long with no intermission.
By the end, “there were just three left in the audience. And Rose instead of taking a bow, she goes right up to each of the courageous or insane or homeless three and shakes their hand and says ‘thanks for coming, let’s stay in touch.’”
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged
The Public Theater
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Choreographed by Dan Wagoner, set design by Jason Ardizzone-West, costume design by Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, sound design by Scott Lehrer
Cast: Charlotte Bydwell (as Lucy Michael), Haviland Morris (Irenie Walker), Maryann Plunkett (Kate Harris), Matilda Sakamoto (May Smith), Jay O. Sanders (David Michael), Brenda Wehle (Rose Michael), and Rita Wolf (Sally Michael).
Running time: Two hours with no intermission
Tickets: $55 – $70
The Michaels is on stage through November 24, 2019