WASP Democrats on Stage: “What Did You Expect?”

The cast of What Did You Expect?. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Voluble TV commentator Chris Matthews repeatedly calls MSNBC “the place for politics.” Playwright-director Richard Nelson has another idea. He believes the real place for politics is at home. To illustrate, he wrote and directed The Apple Family Plays, a tetralogy presented by the Public Theater during the 2012 presidential campaign. Now, with What Did You Expect? and Hungry, earlier this year, Nelson is marking the current presidential campaign with The Gabriel Family Plays.

The Apple Family Plays were a remarkable achievement in American theater and The Gabriel Family Plays, though familiar in construction, are no less remarkable for their astonishing naturalism and for much, much more.

“Who are we?” someone asks, crucially, in What Did You Expect? Yet Nelson works it so that no one moment in this family gathering is any more crucial than another. At the same time, with this earnest question he puts his finger on his intention: to pinpoint a middle-class, WASP Democrat family. Like the Apples, the Gabriels are educated, well-read, saddled with financial concerns and relish eating well-prepared meals at home.

Presidential worries mixed with myriad digressions.

Like the Apples as well, the Gabriels live in Rhinebeck, NY; they do much of their chatting as they gear up for dinner. The Apples gathered in the dining room while shuffling things in from an unseen kitchen. The Gabriels sit around a kitchen table and shuffle things off to an unseen dining room. The families are similar in that, while discussing such immediate concerns as who’ll prepare the guacamole and who’ll slice and dice the onion for a picnic the next day, they slide from one topic to the next — occasionally including politics. Rarely, if ever, do they raise their well-bred voices even as they gab incessantly.

Story continues below.

The characters are Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), whose playwright husband Thomas recently died; Thomas’s brother, George (Jay O. Sanders); George and Thomas’s mother, Patricia Gabriel (Roberta Maxwell); George and Thomas’s sister, Joyce (Amy Warren); George’s wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley); and Thomas’s first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), a theater actress living with Mary as she goes through Thomas’s effects to identify salable items.

One topic pressing on everyone’s minds is how they’ll keep Patricia in her expensive assisted-living home without cutting into the college tuition money for George and Hannah’s son. The problem arose the day before the play occurs — Sept. 16, 2016 — when it became clear that Patricia made a terrible financial investment. This is why Karin is looking so thoroughly through Thomas’s plastic baskets. She finds a letter from the painter R.B. Kitaj, but Thomas noted that it mustn’t be sold. Meanwhile, George is attempting to sell a family piano that he, a cabinetmaker, uses to teach on.

Family resentments pop up briefly and are quickly submerged. Patricia’s mistreatment of Joyce during her childhood is revealed by way of a couple of brusque and/or thoughtless remarks. For no more than a tense minute or so, Mary’s continuing grief over Thomas becomes apparent — the nearest thing to a real rise in the muted decibel level of the play.

The Gabriel worries are mixed with myriad digressions. It could be said that the Apple and Gabriel plays are each nothing more than a series of digressions — spellbinding ones, perhaps, given how they reflect the reality of many family chats of a certain type. Looking forward to the next day’s picnic, for example, George enthusiastically notes that it’s to be held at the Monument Mountain in Stockbridge, MA, where Nathaniel Hawthorne met Herman Melville in 1850, changing Melville’s life forevermore.

Story continues below.

What Did You Expect? begins with Karin reading from a play of Thomas’s that, it seems, has yet to be produced. It immediately sounds Chekhovian (Chekhov being Nelson’s chief influence), what with two men looking through a window at what, they determine, is a happy family. “The family go about their lives,” Karin reads, and then quotes Thomas’s marginalia: “Perhaps they make a meal? Have a dinner? Must feel normal.” That is Nelson telling his audience what he’s up to, of course.

But with a twist. All of the Apple plays and the first of the Gabriel plays take place on a significant day in a presidential campaign year. Fri., Sept. 16, 2016? There’s nothing significant about that date, though with the unflaggingly ugly Clinton-Trump competition, something untoward happens every day. Still, how did Nelson settle on this one?

Rarely, if ever, do they raise their well-bred voices.

The query leads us to the one aspect in which the ultra-natural What Did You Expect? is something less than thoroughly natural. Whereas these days families like the Clinton-pledged Gabriels air their fears of a Trump victory at great length, these folks don’t devote much time to such worries. There’s a mention, a quick one, of former President Bill Clinton; later on, there’s a minute or two spent to dump on Trump. There’s a reference to the inveterate liar’s appearance the prior night on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And Joyce does insist, as regarding Trump, “Everyone I know is scared.”

Story continues below.

So, given the high quality of Nelson’s writing and the playwright’s direction of the cast, any cavil about not enough Trump denigration taking place and not enough misgiving about Clinton being expressed is just that: a cavil. The delectable, consoling ensemble playing isn’t an everyday matter, and the members of this cast have become masters at it — especially Plunkett and Sanders, who are married to each other in real life and are the only holdovers from The Apple Family Plays.

Because the actors speak their lines in such modulated tones — many of them laugh-out-loud funny — some audience members may not hear everything that’s said. The result can’t be excused, exactly, but to some extent it’s the gestalt of the play that counts as the actors go about their lives in Susan Hilferty’s everyday, almost Kmart-bought duds, and on a basic kitchen (by Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West) dressed with appliances.

There’s an old saying about most accidents happening at home. With What Did You Expect?, Richard Nelson sublimely makes a case for most political give-and-take unfolding there, too.