by Carol Rocamora
Rarely does a play come along that captures a moment in time as vividly, as acutely, and as affectingly, as What Do We Need To Talk About?, Richard Nelson’s remarkable new play that premiered this past Wednesday on the Public Theater’s website and runs thru May 3.
The on-line opening is a phenomenon (as well as a necessity) of our times, of course – but miraculously, it’s made the play all the more relevant and meaningful. What Do We Need To Talk About? is the fifth in Nelson’s Apple Family play cycle. The previous four premiered from 2010 to 2013 at the Public – one a year, featuring four family members (a brother and three sisters) at home in Rhinebeck NY. We watched them cook, dine, talk, as they responded to current events specific to each play – including the 2010 elections, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 presidential elections and the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Those of us who were fortunate to have seen these plays (directed by the author) marveled at their faithfulness to “life as it is,” as Chekhov called it. It’s as if we were guests at their dinner table, observing their lives as they unfolded in intimate detail.
Playwright Richard Nelson has turned our current adversities into artistic advantages. The author of several family cycles (including the Gabriels and the Michaels), he’s reunited the members of the Apple Family, who now connect on a computer screen via ZOOM out of necessity, in the midst of the current pandemic. Elder sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high school teacher, has just recovered from COVID-19, and is now convalescing in her home in Rhinebeck. She’s cared for by her brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer. They’re ZOOMing with their siblings who live in other homes – Marian (Laila Robins), a second grade teacher, and Jane (Sally Murphy), now cohabiting with Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor and manager of a Rhinebeck restaurant who is self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms.
Much has happened since we last met the Apples in 2013. Richard has separated from his wife and two children, joined a corporate law firm, and returned to work with Governor Cuomo in Albany (for whom he worked 10 years ago.) Marian has lost her only daughter Evan. Jane is divorced, her son Billy is grown, and she’s working as a writer.
Nothing dramatic happens over the 70 minutes of this play (“I thought ZOOM only lasted 40 minutes,” quipped one family member). Characters care for each other (Barbara eats the meal Richard has prepared for her: Tim consumes the dish Jane has left outside the door of his quarantined room). They tell jokes (“a horse walks into a bar…” etc.) They marvel at Cuomo’s currently popularity (“some things you can’t explain…”). They share notes on how to shop at the grocery story (“stay away from people…”). They exchange stories – on topics as diverse as long-forgotten female authors and the plot of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. They listen to a recording made by their late Uncle Ben (eerily reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape).
It all seems so normal – “life as it is” – except for those disturbing references that creep into the conversation. Deftly, delicately, Nelson weaves reality into the dialogue – like the mention of a dear friend’s passing (Mark Blum, a true-to-life New York actor who tragically died of COVID.) “We’re so lucky,” declares Marian. “There are so many people who can’t stay home like this,” says Barbara. “We’re all scared,” confesses Jane. There’s a haunting interlude when they listen to Bach’s B Minor Mass. As the choir sings “Dona Nobis Pacem,” Barbara says: “I thought I was going to die. I needed to say that.” “So did we,” echoes Richard. “I needed to say that.”
The cast approaches perfection. Nelson has reunited the actors from the fourth Apple play (although some have appeared in the cycle since 2010). Each actor wears his/her character like a second skin, and, watching them in their separate frames on our computers, they are as familiar as our own friends with whom we chatted hours before on previous ZOOM meeting.
Finally, good-nights are exchanged. “We should do this again.” “Tomorrow night?” It’s a comforting and familiar refrain these days. We’re saying it to each other every night – on ZOOM, on Skype, Face-Time – grateful for the continuum of human contact. The refrain is reassuring, as one Apple family member after another closes his/her frame on the computer screen and disappears into the darkness.
Then there’s the final moment, when we’re left with Barbara’s face, alone, starring blankly into the computer screen, in after-shock. Watching her silent image, we remember lines she uttered only a few moments earlier – words that sum up our own feelings so accurately and so achingly. “I don’t know,” says Barbara. “I don’t know what I know.”
What Do We Need To Talk About, written and directed by Richard Nelson, now through Sunday May 3 on the Public Theater YouTube Channel or www.publictheater.org