By Samuel L. Leiter
Anyone who’s relished each or any of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays (2010-2013), set in Rhinebeck, NY, and each with its topical political ambience, is likely to hunger for even more of the same. To satisfy that appetite, Nelson has initiated a three-play, follow-up series about a different Rhinebeck family, the Gabriels, who live around the corner from the Apples; each installment is set on a specific day over a period of nine months during this unprecedentedly fractious election year. The first play in Nelson’s “real time” progression, Hungry, is set within the span of 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 4 (the night the play opened), a few days after the Super Tuesday primaries; play number two opens during the fervor of September’s election season, and the third is scheduled for Election Day itself. Nelson’s got his work cut out for himself.
Consistently engaging, Hungry continues the same naturalistic, conversational atmosphere as its predecessors; those plays, though, were a bit more emotionally and intellectually flavorsome. Political junkies hoping for the give and take of a family gathering in which there’s a free-for-all reaction to the campaigns can be forgiven for thinking they were promised a highly seasoned dish from which the salt and pepper were omitted. Those seeking subtler palette pleasers, though, may find them in the subtext.
The Gabriels have gathered in Rhinebeck for a ceremony to scatter the ashes of novelist and playwright Thomas Gabriel, who died four months earlier. We meet Thomas’s third wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired physician, who carries the play’s greatest emotional weight; Thomas’s brother, George (Jay O. Sanders), a piano teacher and cabinetmaker; George’s wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), a catering employee; Thomas’s sister, Joyce (Amy Warren), a costume designer; Thomas’s first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), an acting teacher, whose outsider status is gently, but amusingly, alluded to; and the feisty matriarch, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), who appears only toward the end but is constantly talked about and looked in on.
Everything transpires in the kitchen, suggested merely by appliances, tables, and chairs in a three-quarters round space; why two designers, Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, were required, is a puzzlement. Jennifer Tipton did the unobtrusive lighting. Like flies on the wall, we overhear the minutiae of smart but familiar conversation as a dinner of ratatouille, pasta, and apple crisp (Thomas’s favorite) is prepared. Vegetables and apples are sliced and diced, chopped and peeled, all in as intricately real a way as possible. It’s not long before the fragrance of real cooking fills the space.
Aside from the preparation of the meal, little happens as the characters ramble, as in most actual conversations. They talk about Rhinebeck, a lovely town the family senses is leaving them behind as it attracts a much richer class of inhabitants. There’s discussion of certain unwelcome renovations to the local Franklin D. Roosevelt Museum. We hear passages read from a late 19th-century cookbook, and from a patronizing article about the town and its people by a snooty New Yorker now residing in the village. Family issues arise and humor occasionally intrudes, especially when a huge laugh arises from a story about how all the nation’s recent problems stem from the Bill-Monica sex scandal.
Perhaps 15 minutes of stage time actually addresses the presidential race, during which the Democrat-leaning family’s fears for the future are expressed. Although few specifics are on the table (we hear Megyn Kelly’s name but not Donald J. Trump’s), there’s a definite interest (and nervousness) about the chances of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president.
Like the ratatouille prepared on stage, Hungry is an appetizing but meatless dish. It’s satisfying principally because of how expertly its realistic dialogue and behavior is directed by Nelson himself and acted by the superb ensemble (Sanders and his real-life wife, Plunkett, were also in The Apple Plays). One assumes—or, at any rate, hopes—that the play’s tentative political content is the appetizer for the more nutritious courses to be served up later in the year. More meat, please!
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family: Hungry
The Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through April 3 Photos: Joan Marcus