Oskar Eustis asked Richard Nelson to go big.
Instead, he went small.
A little too small.
Explaining the origin moment of Richard Nelson’s four part Apple Family Plays, the third installment of which, SORRY, is on now at New York’s Public Theater, Artistic Director Oskar Eustis writes in his program notes:
“In the spring of 2009, I had breakfast with Richard Nelson and asked him to write a play for the Public. I had a very specific idea in mind: I wanted him to tackle a large cast, documentary style chronicle of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was unhappy that we had no American counterpart to England’s David Hare, or the work that Nick Kent and the Tricycle Theater were doing in London, and I posited that if a theater like the Public made a commitment to producing large cast, political plays, that it could inspire our writers to write them.
Richard, in the manner of artists everywhere, listened intently, engaged with me in a lively discussion about the possibilities, and came back to me a few days later with an idea that was quite different than mine, but nonetheless responsive to the issues I’d raised…. His idea was that rather than focus on a large cast, public issue documentary, he create a small and intimate family constellation and have them respond to the great public issues of our time in personal, character-driven ways.”
On learning of Eustis’s concept – essentially offering a chance to go big on one of the country’s main stages – you must commend him for having vision and trying to use the theatre institution under his command as the American National Theatre it effectively is. Too often we hear complaints about how playwrights are marginalized or not given enough leeway from Artistic Directors to create what they want. Or that AD’s simply don’t have the courage or interest to sponsor new works of importance. But in this case, here was Eustis coming straight to the playwright and asking for the good stuff – putting a dream offer on the table. This was a request for a new “history” play for our time.
Unfortunately, what Eustis got is a much smaller project than what he wanted (even if the content spans four works instead of one). Nelson’s plays have their moments, but by and large they are small, inert, and fairly undramatic. Far from somehow engaging the big issues, these plays feel walled off from contemporary culture. At the slowest moments, they are plain old boring. You can’t be too demanding of the bare stage, $15 a ticket lab series setting at the Public, but still, given the initial ask, and what the result could have been, the Apple Family cycle feels fairly inconsequential. These plays challenge the bare minimum about our society and our role in it. If next time Eustis decided to dial direct to David Hare, no one could fault him.
There are a few potential pitfalls with the style of still, quiet, real time, straight theatre employed in SORRY. One is pauses and silence. Nelson, who is clearly a Chekhov fan (at one point one of the three Apple sisters jokes “to New York, to New York”, bemoaning their slow life in the sticks), likes long, fraught silences, where characters look forlornly at each other or gaze into space. Such moments only work if the audience is either fully inside the characters’ heads, or can at least see the characters’ faces well enough to read the emotional currents. Otherwise, the effect is dead air as we wait for something to happen. Or worse – cuteness. We start looking at characters being cute. Perhaps some of the dramaturgy here would work better on screen. But from the upper row of the lab, these moments are hard to read and become opportunities to check your email.
Another hazard to watch out for is the belief that because real life doesn’t correspond neatly to storylines and dramatic structures, a documentary style, of-the-moment show doesn’t have to either. That’s kind of like a contemporary restaurant saying that its food is going be disappointing and chaotic – because, you know, that’s modern life. Drama is the wire that most theatre – especially such mainstream straight ahead fare as this – hangs on. Without dramatic tension to suspend larger themes and ideas, attention wanders. There is a bit of a plot about elderly Uncle Benjamin getting shipped off to a home, but the family’s overwrought reaction to this inevitability seems too amped up – as if to compensate for the absence of a more believable dramatic arc.
And perhaps the biggest issue with reality theatre is that, if there’s no theatricality, but just people talking as people really talk a la My Dinner With Andre, they better have some sharp stuff to say or reveal info we’re really interested in. But there’s not much for us to feast on here. This is paradoxical, because you sense Nelson really wants us to put down the smart phones, stop tweeting, and have deep discussions about the BIG ISSUES. The implication is that somehow that is not happening “out there” in the real world during our normal lives – that we are all running about our business while being fundamentally unaware of WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON.
And yet once dragged into the theater to ponder the big stuff – what we get are a bunch of characters who have very little of interest to say. I was probably not the only one dying for a good political diatribe, something funny or at least partly humorous – presumably about Romney. But it never comes. Richard, the brother who is a corporate lawyer, as the sole character who seems really engaged in the larger world would be the one to let loose some zingers. No such luck. A contemporary play about a political moment by a British playwright would presumably have dialogue and bon mots that would ring in your ears for days afterwards. Not here.
A puzzling aspect of the play is the confined social world of the Apples and determining exactly what class they are. With the exception of Richard, who must be coining it as a corporate lawyer (he just spent two months in London), the other characters seem financially strapped. There’s a theme of tough times and failing to connect with a meaningful career (in SORRY it’s not just Uncle Benjamin who’s living in Barbara’s house – another family member has come home to roost). And yet the milieu is still distinctly upper middle class – or fading upper middle class (hello Anton). There are no voices to challenge anything about the status quo, except in the gentlest possible way. There’s an air of disengagement, of inertia – a resignation to life. But you don’t come away feeling this family is somehow representative of any larger trends of our time. They just don’t seem to be getting up to very much.
What must be said about this production is how strong the actors are. Every one of them would be completely at home in the kind of big play Eustis was hoping for. But they don’t get enough opportunity to show their stuff in this quiet, small frame story.