In 1992, photographer Larry Sultan published an unusual book about his parents Irv and Jean entitled “Pictures From Home,” a combination of staged photographs of them, stills from the family’s home movies, and a sort of memoir based on his extensive interviews with them.
“This project will become one of my hallmark achievements,” Danny Burstein as Larry says near the start of “Pictures from Home,” an unusual three-character play by Sharr White adapting Sultan’s unusual book, which opened tonight on Broadway. “I know that’s not a modest thing to say. Regardless, this isn’t about me, it’s about them.”
Nathan Lane scoffs. “Larry may say it’s about us, but trust me, it’s about him.” As Irv, Lane needles and mocks his son, and generally disapproves of his project, which strikes him as pointless and intrusive – “it’s like he’s been investigating us” – and finds it annoying that he visits them so often, leaving Larry’s own wife Kelly and his children in the Bay area to fly down to visit for long weekends at his parents’ home in the San Fernando Valley.
“I can be a little more forgiving of Larry’s project than his father; it’s nice he wants to come down,” Zoë Wanamaker as Jean tells us, but she too doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. “Kelly tells us Larry’s a very important photographer, whatever that means. I’d just like to have a couple nice pictures for the fridge.”
“Pictures from Home” the stage play is put together by Broadway pros, led by gifted Tony winning director Bartlett Sher, and starring some of the best actors the theater has to offer. It mixes dialogue, direct audience address, and copious projections of Sultan’s actual photographs. The result is sometimes entertaining, thanks largely to Nathan Lane. But I’m afraid I ultimately side with Irv. However much a hallmark achievement the book was as a work of photography, the stage adaptation feels less hallmark than at best harmless. Its attempts to replicate the book’s subtexts about aging and mortality, intimacy and facade, art and truth, feel underdeveloped — and they overburden the story.
In a program note, White talks about how Sultan’s project was an exploration of everything from his parents’ relationship to his perspective on his adulthood, and how White’s play “is my exploration of Larry’s exploration” – and how the actors’ interpretations as well as the audience reaction provide “even more layers.”
Layers, maybe, but also filters, which serve as a barrier rather than a window into the lives of Irv and Jean. There are intriguing glimpses into those lives. Before he moved the family to California, for example, we learn that Irv was working at an English clothing store in New York City where he had to pretend to be a gentile, even changing his name to one that didn’t sound Jewish. He couldn’t get a job. He eventually found a job selling razor blades for the Schick corporation, and rose up to become a vice president, until he was either fired or quit. (“Sometimes he quit sometimes he got fired, it just depends on the point he wants to make,” Jean says.) For years now, it’s Jean who’s been the breadwinner, working in real estate, and there are intimations of tension in the marriage.
But this is not Arthur Miller. The point here is not to present the tragedy of everyday American lives, but to weigh the characters’ lives down with deeper meaning about issues like…the nature of photography. There is some insight here, some room for thought, some poignant moments – but not enough.
The images from “Pictures from Home” that will probably stay with me, are some of Nathan Lane’s hilarious stage business. At one point, every time Larry starts to photograph him, he takes on a noble pose as if a heroic statue. At another, he asks Larry to tell him whether he can notice his limp, and then walks in a way that feels like a masterclass in portraying somebody who’s trying to hide a limp but can’t. One can argue that Lane is miscast; Irv seems far less funny than Lane. But I welcomed this actor’s trademark comic spin on lines that in other hands might have come off simply as mean.
Pictures from Home
Studio 54 through April 30, 2023
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Written by Sharr White, based on the photo memoir by Larry Sultan
Directed by Barlett Sher
Set design by Michael Yeargan, costume design by Jennifer Moeller, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, sound design by Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still, projection design by Ben Pearcy at 59 productions
Cast: Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoë Wanamaker