Monday, September 26, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“What Did You Expect?” and “A Taste of Honey”

What Did You Expect?
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through October 9, 2016
The Public Theater; 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

A Taste of Honey
Written by Shelagh Delaney; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through October 30, 2016
Pearl Theater, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Jay O. Sanders and Lynn Hawley in What Did You Expect? (photo: Joan Marcus)

For What Did You Expect?, the second play in his trilogy about an election year in the life of the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, NY—two hours north of Manhattan on the Hudson River—Richard Nelson once again chronicles ordinary Americans sitting around the kitchen of their comfortable home and, while making meals (dinner and tomorrow’s picnic lunch), discussing various topics intelligently and in a civilized manner. There are arguments and apologies, jibes and reminiscences, and sadness and laughter. These plays find Nelson encompassing the fullness of humanity; it’s not for nothing that Chekhov has been evoked in reference to these beautiful, intimate works.

The Gabriel family comprises mother Patricia, son George and his wife Hannah, sister Joyce, and two wives of recently deceased brother (and famed novelist-playwright) Thomas—first wife Karin and third wife and widow Mary. As in Nelson’s previous Apple Family Cycle, his individuals are intimately but rigorously characterized, their quirks, mannerisms, foibles and heartbreaks making them sympathetic and real to any of us watching from the audience.

Politics lurking throughout these plays, and since Nelson has set them in the present—I saw What Did You Expect? on the evening it takes place, Friday, September 16—there’s discussion of our current presidential election. There are only a few moments of particular discussion, underlined by Hannah saying, “It just makes me feel dirty…Filthy. Like you just want to shower off.”

This precisely observed glimpse at our nation at a significant moment has been directed with rigorous intimacy by Nelson himself, while his cast—Roberta Maxwell (Patricia), Jay O. Sanders (George), Lynn Hawley (Hannah), Amy Warren (Joyce), Meg Gibson (Karin) and Mary Ann Plunkett (Mary)—is simply unbeatable. The final play in the trilogy, Women of a Certain Age, opens on Election Night; I can’t wait.

Rebekah Brockman in A Taste of Honey (photo: Russ Rowland)

When A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s comedy-drama about a young woman’s stifling life in small-town England (Delaney hailed from Lancashire), premiered in 1958, it was hailed as a breakthrough for the then-19-year-old playwright. Although her career never really panned out after this one notable success, her debut play remains trenchant and touching, borne out in director Austin Pendleton’s modestly-scaled revival.

Jo, an 18-year-old living with her 40-year-old mother Helen in a small, ramshackle apartment, is desperate to break free from the shackles of the stifling environment in which she’s grown up. She brings home her sailor boyfriend Jimmy, about to ship out, while her mom flaunts her new fiancée Peter, the latest in a long line of men that Jo refers to with her cutting remark, “What’s this one called?” After Helen marries and Jo becomes pregnant, she befriends the well-meaning Geoffrey after she realizes that Jimmy isn’t coming back.

Delaney’s natural talent for dialogue allows her characters both dignity and the occasional kick in the pants, and her instinctive musicality comes to the fore with snippets of songs in and around the conversations, and Pendleton has a superb trio performing onstage and interacting with the performers, who are consistently top-notch.

In the leads, Rachel Botchan’s Helen lives and breathes true survival, with a heaping dose of humor, and even better is Rebekah Brockman’s Jo, a creation of such combined toughness and empathy that she pays the ultimate tribute to Delaney’s remarkable heroine.

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