Richard Nelson Agrees: Happy Families Are All Alike

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Jay O. Sanders, Meg Gibson and Lynn Hawley in Hungry. Photos: Joan Marcus.

It’ll come as little news to anyone who knows anything about American playwrights that they all too often focus on dysfunctional families. Certainly that’s the harrowing subject of perhaps the most profound and monumental 20th century work, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

There is, however, at least one playwright whose guiding interest is the happy family: Richard Nelson. Or, if his fictional families aren’t endlessly giddy with delight, they’re at least undeniably functional — and that dates back to his superlative Goodnight Children Everywhere, which won the 2000 Olivier Award for Best New Play.

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Nelson’s families get along. They sit down and have wide-ranging, productive conversations. Most recently, this was true of his Apple family, of Rhinebeck, New York, who featured irresistibly in The Apple Family Plays tetralogy, comprised of That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad, Sorry and Regular Singing.

Nelson now appears to have shifted a few blocks across medium-sized, middle-class Rhinebeck and set his sights on a new Everyfamily. He’s uncorking a trilogy dubbed Election Year in the Life of a Family. (The Apple tetralogy also took place over an approximate four-year election period, so the playwright is speeding things up this time around.)

Leo Tolstoy famously observed that happy families are all alike; Nelson doesn’t defy the observation. At first glance, and, indeed, in subsequent glances, the Apples and the Gabriels seem like carbon copies — a happenstance not undercut by the appearance in both plays of two married actors, Jay O. Saunders and Maryann Plunkett, who played the married Apples in the former play-set. In the first play of this new trilogy, Hungry, Nelson gets a little more fancy: Sanders plays George Gabriel, who is married to Hannah (Lynn Hawley), while Plunkett plays Mary Gabriel, recent widow of Thomas, George’s older playwright brother.

Fans of the Apple plays (you can count me enthusiastically among them) won’t need any reminding that they were a loquacious unit who did much conversing while readying their meals. So do the Gabriels. (All families eat, don’t they? O’Neill’s Tyrones begin their ferociousness following a dinner.)

The big difference here is that the Apples regularly gathered in the living room and needed to leave the stage to get to the kitchen, whereas the Gabriels gab entirely around the kitchen table. (Co-set designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West provide an all-practical environment, including a refrigerator, an oven and a working sink, while Hilferty’s costume design give the Gabriels the sort of wardrobe favored by the Apples.)

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Because the Gabriels are preparing ratatouille — and all but mother Patricia Gabriel (Roberta Maxwell), who’s napping in the offstage living room, pitches in — a whole lot of slicing and dicing goes on. Also tending to this is Gabriel sister Joyce (Amy Warren), who is an assistant costume designer, and Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress and teacher who, though Thomas’s first wife, remains extended family. And oh, the tomatoes and onions attacked for the ratatouille!

The first thing Mary is observed doing in her kitchen is kneading bread, which suggests that the play’s title only refers somewhat to the Gabriels’ bodily needs. Mary will see to it that they’re fed, but it’s the intangibles that they hunger for.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Big talk among the small talk.[/pullquote]As with the Apple plays, Nelson’s intention is to tie these fictional-family get-togethers to an election-year event. In this case, the Gabriels have apparently come from an informal memorial service for Thomas that occurs on March 4, 2016 — the day after one of the contentious Republican debates. At one point, Mary remarks that she’d vote for Fox News’ Megyn Kelly — a statement obviously responding to the journalist’s March 3 nailing of Donald Trump.

Politics ties the Gabriels as much as the Apples, but Nelson’s skill is depicting how, when any family gathers, subjects tend to bounce back and forth, politics only emerging as a topic within the context of a rambling discussion. Politics may be the big talk among the small talk, but it’s not the only big talk.

Still, audience members with the presidential race on their collective minds may be eager to see how the Gabriels talk up Clinton, Trump, et. al., but Nelson keeps another big talk — Mary’s recollections of deceased Thomas — rolling on. So much so that before he even raises the issue of our 2016 political shenanigans (Hillary’s laugh is mocked), there’s been so much small chatter that he does run the risk of losing the audience’s interest.

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What Nelson can’t be faulted for is his accomplishment as a director. Ordinarily, dramatists are well advised not to direct their works. Here is a rare exception; he knows precisely how it should be done. Once again, the magical ensemble work that was the mark of the Apple plays is on display.

The playwright guarantees that the primarily low-key chats are as natural as a rising sun. At one point, and one point only, Mary raises her voice. No one else ever does. This might imply that Hunger isn’t dramatic. It is — but in its own quiet, relatable way. This is ensemble playing of the highest order. In Nelson’s cast there is no first among equals, only first-rate equals.

Nelson’s approach has been called Chekhovian. It may be in the Chekhov mode, but it’s Chekhov without the constant undercurrent of anguish. Mary, for example, is grieving, but she’s not in denial about her sadness. She’s handling it with unfettered psychological strength. Her strength is Nelson’s, and gratitude must be extended to him.