In “What Happened? The Michaels Abroad,” the dancer Rose Michael, already riddled with cancer, has died of COVID, and her family and friends have gathered around the kitchen table in the apartment of a member of her former company, breaking bread, reminiscing, and, occasionally, dancing. Rose’s widow Kate recalls for them what Rose told her near the end of her life: “’…life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. And it doesn’t matter.’ When she said this, I thought she was being bitter, angry. But I had misunderstood. It’s not that it doesn’t matter. It’s that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t last.”
It’s a lesson, Kate said, that she also learned from the pandemic: “Because we are ephemeral does not mean we don’t matter.”
It’s a poignant moment. But it occurs after some 100 minutes in which COVID or death or loss are only tangentially mentioned, when at all. The 110 minutes of “What Happened? The Michaels Abroad,” which is on stage at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theater through October 8, is mostly filled with the same kind of small talk that for the past eleven years playwright-director Richard Nelson has been putting into a series of plays that he recently started calling the Rhinebeck Panorama. That’s because the main characters in all of them are from Rhinebeck, New York, which is where Richard Nelson lives.
The Rhinebeck Panorama has adhered to a sometimes stultifying formula, which is too rigid simply to be considered Nelson’s voice, but too complex to dismiss as no more than a gimmick (although I’ve occasionally felt inclined to do so.) “What Happened?” which is the twelfth and (Nelson promises) the final play in the series, shares the main ingredients of the previous eleven. There are, I’ll concede, a couple of unprecedented deviations this time around: The kitchen table around which the characters gather is not in Rhinebeck, but in Angers, France, because that is where Rose’s daughter Lucy and her niece May are studying dance. The two of them, portrayed by Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Sakamoto respectively, also offer some thrilling and sometimes deliberately comic modern dance, meant to be adaptations of Rose’s choreography that they want to show the other five characters — most of whom, I need to point out, are from Rhinebeck. Even the table looks like it’s from Rhinebeck.
It’s tempting to mock how interchangeable, low key and off-hand these plays seem. (and I’ve occasionally given into that temptation.) But as with most of the other plays in the series, “What Happened?” at its best offers — for those theatergoers with the patience to pay attention — exquisite performances, woven with delicate filigrees of fact and feeling, that subtly reveal the intricacies of interrelated characters.
“What Happened?” has much the same mix of glories and drawbacks as any and all of the other plays in the Rhinebeck Panorama, which share many elements:
- The characters sit around a table, preparing and then eating a meal, all the while talking.
- The point of the dialogue is verisimilitude — this is how people would actually speak around a kitchen table — not necessarily passion, tension nor even audibility.
- This is supposed to be real time, so the plays can feel long, and slow, and random, and there is never an intermission. There is an occasional blackout, in which we understand that some time has passed, although usually just a few minutes.
- The plays are set on the days they open. Nelson began the series with “That Hopey Changey Thing” which both opened and was set on November 10, 2010, the night of the midterm elections, and the other three plays in the initial “Apple plays” — the first Rhinebeck family was named Apple — were set on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, the morning of the 2012 presidential election, and the tenth anniversary of September 11th. This has had its drawbacks: It seemed obvious in “Women of a Certain Age,” (even by the title), which was set on Election Day 2016, that the playwright assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win.
“What Happened?” is set, and opened, on September 8th, which doesn’t have any great significance (I guess he wasn’t interested in another September 11th play.) Nelson does work into the script at one point that it is the second night of Rosh Hashanah, apparently so that he could give this line to Kate (who’s apparently Jewish), which fits into the implicit theme: “Rose wanted to take me to Germany. Berlin. She told me: ‘it won’t heal you. But it’s a good thing to do. To face what has been lost.'”
- Nelson makes a point of updating the scripts until the last moment before the opening night performance, to reflect what’s happening in the world at that very moment. But in “What Happened,” these are mostly throwaway lines – a fleeting reference to Afghanistan refugees, and to the Delta variant. One senses that Nelson intended “What Happened?” to be a look back at the loss and trauma of the pandemic as if it’s now over and people can breathe again, but the Delta variant has blown up that apparently intended narrative. All the audience members had to do to realize that was look at the masks we were all required to wear.
- It seems clear that the point of these plays is to capture The Way We Live Now. “Centuries from now, when people want to know what a certain class of person lived like in America, they’ll go to Richard’s plays,” Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, where most of the plays were produced, recently told a reporter. If that turns out to be true, it will be in at least one way too bad, because Nelson sometimes lets his personal views undermine the reliability of his cultural observations. In “What Happened?”, David, Rose’s ex-husband, talks about a friend of his who quit his own theater company because his staff apparently attacked him for being racist. Except we don’t hear any account of what his staff actually said, what specifically they accused him of, only David’s account of his friend’s misery. The playwright leaves us no choice but to side with David’s friend – a lost opportunity to explore the ambiguities and multiple viewpoints of what’s being called cancel culture. (Nelson did something similarly disappointing, more elaborately, in Incidental Moments of the Day, the seventh of the Apple plays, presented online last September.)
- At some point – usually for no more than ten minutes in a play that usually lasts some two hours – the characters explicitly discuss the significance of the day in which the play is set, and/or drive home the implicit theme. This is of course an effort to re-create the way a family might actually talk during a meal, but it can be exasperating. “Women of a Certain Age,” the last and most exasperating of the three Gabriel plays – plays about the Gabriel family during the election year of 2016 — took place on Election Day, 2016, yet there was no mention of either candidate until halfway through the play, and then only a brief exchange.
- To be fair, the characters — who are all literate and intelligent, many of them artists of some kind — frequently quote from old books and letters. More times than not, these quotations, and the seemingly random stories the characters like to tell, indirectly underscore the theme. At one point in “What Happened?” Kate tells the story in a poem that Rose gave her, which concludes with God telling a ploughman who lost his wife: “You must understand one very important thing, and face up to it: ‘There is no life without death.”
- A cast of very fine actors inhabit their characters in a way that most plays don’t seem to focus on, perhaps because they are too busy doing other things – such as establishing a plot. The characters seem like people you could know (especially, I’ll admit, if you’re white, liberal, middle class and live in a city in the Northeast), and the actors make credible the sometimes complicated relationships. In this play, Dave (Jay O. Sanders) and Kate (Maryann Plunkett) were both once married to Rose.
Sanders and Plunkett, who are in real life a married couple, have appeared in all twelve of the Rhinebeck Panorama Plays, and over the years, a core group has formed nearly a Nelson repertory company. It would be hard to overstate how essential their performances have been.
- Nelson has a sly habit of folding in comments – defenses, really — about his own work. Another one of Kate’s stories concludes: “so much of the world, maybe even all of it, we can find, say, over a meal, or with simplest of routines, the subtlest of gestures.”
I don’t think I’ve found the whole world in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama plays, but he has cooked up some substantial food for thought over the past decade, especially (to my taste) “What Do They Need to Talk About,” the first of his three Apple family plays on Zoom during the pandemic. Art may not last, but while it’s around, it can matter.
What Happened? The Michaels Abroad
Written & Directed by Richard Nelson
Hunter Theater Project at Frederick Loewe Theater
through October 8
Running time: one hour 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $39.50,. $17.50 for all students with valid ID
Cast: Charlotte Bydwell, Haviland Morris, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Matilda Sakamoto, Rita Wolf and Yvonne Woods. Sets by Jason ArdizzoneWest; Costumes by Susan Hilferty; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton; Sound by Will Pickens. Production Stage Manager Theresa Flanagan