By JK Clarke . . .
Listening in on a family’s conversation has always been fascinating and revealing—especially to the voyeuristically inclined—and Richard Nelson’s series of plays (this being the ninth and final, not counting the Zoom plays) witnessing the everyday life of extended families of Rhinebeck, New York, have repeatedly proven this hypothesis. But his latest play, What Happened? The Michaels Abroad, the second in a series, doubles down, becoming something of a socio-historical document that can and should be studied for years to come by those who want to know what life was like “during the pandemic.”
Nevermind that the “family” is united in their devotion to and expertise in modern dance, an insular world often impenetrable to outsiders, their conversations and concerns are universal. Especially this year. Cleverly set “today” (and to emphasize this point, one character noted during the performance I attended that “today is Rosh Hashanah”, and indeed it was), What Happened? finds the extended family of The Rose Michael Dance Company descending on the home of Suzanne, a former dancer with the company in Angers, France. Like in the previous plays, the scene is a large kitchen with a weathered, country-style table where a dinner— which is being prepared in real time throughout the production—will be served shortly. As we were seated in the small Hunter College theater (in the round) next to the stove, the usher asked if we’d eaten dinner. Not because we were going to participate in the meal, but because we risked being driven to distraction by the delectable smell of fresh bread and lasagne. Nearby restaurants undoubtedly had an usually large number of lasagne orders after the show. The audience is the fly on the wall, watching the meal being prepared and listening to the unfolding discussions.
In the first play of the series, The Michaels, we learned that Rose Michael, the family matriarch, was dying of cancer. In the time around her diagnosis, she had fallen in love with retired school teacher Kate (the fabulous and understated Maryann Plunkett). Now, in What Happened? we learn they were married shortly before Rose’s death. Kate arrives in France, exhausted, just as the meal is being prepared. It’s her first trip out of the country, but she has come to see Rose’s daughter’s performance at the Fringe Festival. Lucy Michael (Charlotte Bydwell) is the somewhat petulant princess of the dance family who throws a small tantrum when Kate offers—at Rose’s prior request—one of her notable dance dresses to May Smith (the graceful Matilda Sakamoto), Rose’s niece, because Lucy had eschewed it when she was a teen. The dress is clearly too large for the diminutive, but appreciative May, so she offers it back to Lucy, who embraces it. A seemingly minor incident, it nonetheless goes a long way toward illustrating inter-family dynamics and exposing some rawness just under the surface. Conversely, the family’s continued embrace of Kate, clearly an outsider who is not part of the dance community, illustrates their warmth and graciousness.
They are an affable bunch, unflaggingly supportive of the next generation of dancers, embodied by Lucy and May. It becomes apparent that May is a superior dancer to Lucy, such that she commands one’s attention when the two dance for the assembled diners. Watching them together seems to draw out an even greater suspicion that Lucy is something of a spoiled child. David Michael (the always wonderful Jay O. Sanders), Rose’s ex-husband, is now the unspoken head of this family, but you’d never know it. He’s understated, yet resolute, and always subtly advocating for harmony whenever signs of discomfort appear.
Even though the play is ostensibly centered around this gathering on the heels of Rose’s death (which we come to understand was hastened by a COVID-19 infection), the real story encompasses the changes and limitations brought on by quarantine restrictions during the pandemic. When Rose and Kate marry, Lucy is in France and can’t attend the wedding and Rose won’t do it on Zoom. And, in a cruel echo of many of our lives, including my own, she couldn’t be there, nor could Kate even, as she lay dying:
"That was the kick in the stomach. You’re ready, you prepare yourself, for one thing and then… And then you can’t even be together. You can’t hold hands. Can’t touch. Kiss. There was an awful pain just in that."
Basic discussions of life during Covid are what make this play extraordinary. When Irenie (Haviland Morris) arrives she casually asks, “Can I wash my hands? Half the train wasn’t even wearing masks.” An extraordinary yet banal observation that would have been utterly puzzling two years ago, but one that also illustrates that France appears to be struggling with the same public health compliances that we’ve experienced in the States. These are all casual observations, but in Nelson’s naturalistic approach, they tell the very real, historically accurate description of life during an unprecedented era.
Nelson also directs this extraordinary play, and his set (Jason Ardinzzone-West) and lighting (Jennifer Tipton) and naturalistic costuming (Susan Hilferty) contribute to the play’s very real feel. In brief blackouts between scenes—which represent momentary interludes of time—there is the sound of a long exhale, seemingly illustrating Kate’s inner monologue speaking for all: “I am tired.”
What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad. Through October 8 at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College (East 68th Street between Park and Lexington). www.huntertheaterproject.org
Photos: Jason Ardizzone-West