Friday, November 5, 2010

Where Are We Headed?


That Hopey Changey Thing
Written and directed by Richard Nelson

Starring Jon DeVries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jay O. Sanders, J. Smith-Cameron

Performances through November 14, 2010
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

With a title like That Hopey Changey Thing, one might think that Richard Nelson has written a liberal screed against the likes of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Instead, we’re treated to a thoughtful, beautifully acted drama about a family, fed up with elected officials in Albany and Washington, on Election Day 2010 in upstate Rhinebeck.

Actually, Nelson throws a curve ball at the start: the first words we hear are “Fuck Andrew Cuomo!” bellowed by Richard Apple, a lawyer in the state attorney general’s office. His disillusionment with his Albany bosses occasions his remark, even if he passes it off as a joke for the benefit of those at the buffet table: Uncle Benjamin, whose recent heart attack has brought on amnesia, and whose house they are at; sister Jane, an author who has come up from Manhattan with her new boyfriend, actor Tim; and sister Barbara, a local teacher who takes care of Benjamin. Soon, the Apples’ most liberal sibling, Marian, arrives, triggering some back-and-forth among the group on an Election Day not turning out well for the Democrats.

After that opening salvo, the rest of That Hopey Changey Thing finesses the confrontations that are de rigueur for family get-togethers with a sense of reasonableness that was also Jon Stewart’s rallying cry at his recent Washington rally. Although Nelson modestly calls his play “disposable” because it’s so wedded to the current election—along with Cuomo, there are mentions of Kirsten Gillibrand, Carl Paladino, new voting machines and even local Congressman Scott Murphy (who was defeated)—there is much more here than mere political discussion.

Although the talk, when it turns to politics, is subject to emotional outbursts and irrationality—as in real life—it also anchors Nelson’s canny creation of a closely-knit liberal family feeling unmoored after cumulative years of corruption in Albany and distrust of Washington. Although the name of the former Alaska governor whose phrase gives the play its title is heard while the Apples eat dessert—when Richard barks out her name to bait the others, Marian drops her pumpkin pie and ice cream on the floor—the ensuing discussion about Palin’s treatment as vice-presidential candidate is thought-provoking, although unlikely to endear Nelson to many downtown theatergoers.

On display in this unpretentious little play is an intelligence and fairness not often seen or heard on television today, and rarely in the theater. But Nelson smartly avoids polemics by allowing the Apples to discuss all sorts of topics, from Benjamin’s illness to Toby, the new, unseen barking dog Richard brought with him to replace Benjamin’s beloved Oliver, who died recently at age 16.

There are two wonderful interludes where characters read: Tim reads an excerpt from a 19th century tome that Jane is referring to for her own book, a history of American manners; later, Benjamin is prodded to recite from The Cherry Orchard, a play he performed in before getting sick. It’s to Nelson’s credit that these seemingly superfluous intrusions are utterly natural. He mines gentle humor from these situations, especially Toby, a welcome respite from the conversations forcing these characters to confront a political system that’s obviously, and fatally, broken.

Nelson directs unobtrusively, giving this 100-minute performance an air of eavesdropping on a real family sitting down to dinner. And his remarkable sextet is, separately and together, the finest ensemble currently on a New York stage. Jon DeVries breaks the heart as the amnesiac Benjamin; Maryann Plunkett’s sweetness is perfect for the matronly Barbara; J. Smith-Cameron and Laila Robins give a bit of an edge to both Jane and Marian; Shuler Hensley nicely captures the nervousness of the outsider Tim; and Jay O. Sanders expertly mixes exasperation and resignation as Richard.

The melancholy that hangs over these proceedings underlines the notion that “that hopey changey thing” is something we all look for, whether on the right, the left or the middle. This intensely personal play might not have a shelf life past this election cycle, so move fast in seeing this valuable document of where we are and where we might be headed.

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