After spending an hour on Zoom with the Apple family in Richard Nelson’s latest low-key play, I was surprised by my reaction, which I could sum up as: Hallelujah! “What Do We Need to Talk About?” is splendid. Streamed live on April 29 but available on YouTube at least through May 3rd, this fifth play that revolves around a brother and three sisters in Rhinebeck, New York is beautiful and sad, funny and moving, terrifically acted, and perfectly timed – a precise reflection of our sudden new era.
This is not what I ever expected to feel for yet another entry in Nelson’s decade-long series of plays at the Public Theater, which is now calling them collectively the Rhinebeck Panorama. These plays actually divide into three series – the first four plays about the Apple family; then three about the Gabriels; then, starting late last year, the first play about the Michaels, at which point I felt I had reached my quota. All three families live in Rhinebeck in upstate New York (which is where the playwright lives) all the characters have been performed by more or less the same half dozen cast members (with just a couple of replacements over the years), and all unfold in real time, with the characters doing little more than sitting around a dinner table, making a meal and talking.
It needs be said that the approach initially felt startling in its innovation and its impact.
Each of the four plays in the Apple family series took place on the very day in which they are set, a date that had some historical and political significance.
That Hopey Changey Thing is set (and opened) on November 10, 2010, the date of the midterm elections, when Andrew Cuomo was elected governor of New York.
Sweet and Sad is set (and opened) on the tenth anniversary of September 11th.
Sorry is set on November 6, 2012, the morning of the U.S Presidential election.
Regular Singing takes place (and opened) on September 22, 2013, the day of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.
All four plays focus on the characters, and are meant to feel like an ordinary day in their lives. They discuss issues, as would any liberal intellectual family, but only sporadically. The intent was clearly to offer a glimpse into “the way we live now”
But The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, a trilogy in 2016, started to feel formulaic, and “low-key” now struck me as less accurate than “barely audible,” and “in real time” seemed too slow and too long. I was exasperated by the final installment, Women of a Certain Age, which took place on Election Day 2016 but barely even mentioned Trump.
Now, though, with most families in America locked down and communicating via screens, it makes sense for Nelson’s characters to be doing nothing more than talking to one another on a Zoom call. The playwright’s approach seems an exact fit for the times, and the return of the Apple family is welcome.
In 2013, all four of these plays were performed in repertory by the same cast that’s now online, and taped for broadcast (currently available online on WNET for another week to New York area viewers), but the Apples need not be familiar characters for audience members to warm to them. It’s easy to pick up on their history.
A small example: Richard Apple (Jay O. Sanders) is stunned at how his boss, Andrew Cuomo, is now being perceived; “who would have believed it?” You don’t have to have witnessed the character’s previous rants against the governor. (It helps to notice the little “ny.gov” next to his name on his Zoom screen, which explains why the call is longer than 40 minutes; Richard tells the group he’s using his work account.)
In this fifth Apple play, as the characters tell jokes and stories and munch on snacks, we slowly learn just how devastating the pandemic has been to them. Jane Apple Halls (Sally Murphy), a freelance writer, has not left her home for an entire month, frightened even to go shopping. She is on a separate screen from her partner Tim, an actor, (Stephen Kunken), because he’s shown symptoms and is in quarantine in her basement; she leaves his meals outside his door.
He wonders: “Will big groups of people want to sit tightly together in the same space for a couple of hours…? When will that happen again? How long will that take?”
To pass the time, and to get their minds off the crisis, each of the callers tells a random story. Tim tells a funny story about an actor friend when he was first starting out. But Tim’s friend has just died from COVID-19 – and when he names him, Mark Blum, we realize that’s the actual actor who died from the virus in March.
Richard is sheltering at the home of his sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett, who is, conveniently, Sanders’ wife.) A high school English teacher, she talks about the effect of the crisis on her students, and on the class project of telling stories inspired by their reading of The Decameron. Why the Decameron? It’s about “people telling each other stories while they wait out a plague. Hundreds of years ago in Italy.”
But the Apple family cannot escape this plague. As it turns out, Barbara has not been teaching her class; a sub has. She has just come home from the hospital.
The remaining cast members are Laila Robins as third sister Marian Apple Platt, an elementary school teacher, and Jon DeVries as Benjamin Apple, their uncle. Benjamin has died. How he is worked into the production is less clever than poignant.
Near the end of the call, the Apple family listens to a recitation of a poem by Walt Whitman, “The Wound Dresser.” (“I thread my way through the hospitals, The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young. Some suffer so much…”), followed by Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The play takes its time with both. In another era, on a stage, this might have seemed slow-moving. Now, these interludes were deeply touching. The callers are reluctant to say goodnight. And so are we.