Richard Nelson’s New Play Closes a Chapter of Theater History

A character named Kate tells a story, of a story told to her, about a man attending a play. The actors are all deaf, and they rest their cheeks and chins on a big table, which stretches out to the audience, to feel the vibration of a spinning top. From his seat, the man leans in and puts his forehead on the surface.

“He wants to share in what the characters are feeling,” Kate says. “He wants to be at that table too.”

Kate’s monologue is delivered almost in passing — no one onstage even responds to it — yet it reflects, in just a few lines, the mission and magic of Richard Nelson’s decade-long, 12-play project called the “Rhinebeck Panorama,” which concludes with “What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” opening Sept. 8 at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theater.

These works, written and directed by Nelson — and realized with aesthetic unity by a consistent creative team and a de facto acting company — contain the four Apple Family plays, which feature a family gathering in Rhinebeck, N.Y., on days that happen to be of national significance; the Gabriels trilogy, about another Rhinebeck household that we visit at three points during the 2016 election year; three pandemic Zoom plays that revisit the Apples as they talk through collective trauma in real time; and a two-part exploration of the Michaels, an artistic family on the verge, then the other side, of immense loss.

Along the way, Nelson has established a style of theater that has its roots in Chekhov: not naturalistic or realistic, but, as Nelson said in a recent interview, an attempt at verisimilitude. Through the dozen plays he makes a case — in our cultural moment of polarized absolutes — for questioning, nuance and, above all, conversation as a way to connect people, process the unknown and ultimately be in the world.

“Centuries from now, when people want to know what a certain class of person lived like in America, they’ll go to Richard’s plays,” said Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, which produced nearly all of the panorama. “The characters are individual, yet they capture the shape of our time.”

The plot of each Rhinebeck play couldn’t be more simple: A family prepares or eats dinner. Conversations are discursive, guided more by the timeline of the meal than anything else; but within them are sprawling and subterranean dramas that reveal themselves through ordinary discussion rather than traditional theatricality. Conflicts are rare — raised voices, even rarer.

If the series has a broad arc, it is in how the characters relate not just to time, but to place: the Apples find a home in Rhinebeck, while the Gabriels are pushed out of it and, the Michaels, by the end, are assembling around a table in France.

“Rhinebeck is a complicated place, as all places are,” said Nelson, who has lived in the Hudson Valley town since the early 1980s. “You take something small, and you just look at it enough, and you see all the pieces and all the things.”

The plays have all been set on the days when they open. But despite that specificity of time and location — and a milieu of predominantly white, educated people — they have achieved broad resonance, including international adaptations and imitations. And by being presented in the round in small spaces, they also elicit the intimacy of a private gathering.

Jay O. Sanders, who along with his wife, Maryann Plunkett — “the beating heart” of the panorama, as Nelson called her — has starred in all 12 plays, recalled asking a question during “The Gabriels” that was promptly answered by a man in the audience who, like the one in Kate’s story, seemingly wanted to join them at the table.

But that is the effect of Nelson’s style, in which no arguments are made and people represent nothing; as Sanders said, “The drama of just living is enough.” In a note for “What Happened?” Nelson includes a telling quote from a hero of his, the early-20th-century theater artist Harley Granville-Barker:

One is tempted to imagine a play — to be written in desperate defiance of Aristotle — from which doing would be eliminated altogether, in which nothing but being would be left. The task set the actors would be to interest their audience in what the characters were, quite apart from anything they might do.

Easier imagined than done. Nelson said that any time he has written a line that sounds like him or his beliefs, it gets cut. “The truth,” he added, “comes from the characters speaking to another character, and not for the audience to overhear.”

In rehearsals, actors are directed to talk as they would at home, not to project as they typically would. They are aware, at all times, of where they are directing their questions or lines. In real life, Nelson said, rarely does someone speak to an entire room; so his characters don’t either.

“It’s very unusual,” Sanders said. “And it takes a lot of courage.”

The plays have flashes of prescience and recognition. You can, for example, trace former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s career through the seven Apple plays, which open in media res with an expletive and mention of his name. The first installment of “The Gabriels,” from early March 2016, includes the now-haunting line, “Don’t you feel something really bad is going to happen?”

At times, though, Nelson’s characters — and perhaps Nelson himself — have been unequipped to deal with history in the making. The Apples gathered on Zoom in early July 2020, amid the upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the theater industry, platitudes reigned; but in Rhinebeck, a group of white people didn’t really know how to talk about it.

Their not thoroughly engaging with Black Lives Matter frustrated some in the moment, including The New York Times’s critic, Jesse Green. But that wouldn’t fit Nelson’s approach to theater. Instead, the Apples ask questions with no answers, and are quietly saddened by a world that might be passing them by.

“What you don’t want to do is make an argument,” Nelson said. “I don’t think my characters are confident about what’s going on. Everybody has their own journey.”

That tension arises again in “What Happened?” — “I don’t know” is a common line — the first of the staged Rhinebeck plays not to be produced by the Public. (Presented by Hunter Theater Project, it is being underwritten by a single donor, Susie Sainsbury. The second two Zoom plays were also independently produced.)

There are no bad feelings between Nelson and the Public; the separation was a matter of logistics. “He was not going to let a pandemic slow him down,” Eustis said of Nelson. “It was sad for me that for the first time, I couldn’t keep up with him. So on a level it breaks my heart that this is not at the Public.”

Nelson felt that “What Happened?” couldn’t wait any longer. He had written a version last year for a live theater season that never came, with politics on his mind as the election approached. But he rewrote it to open now, as live theater re-emerges in New York. Gone are any mentions of the current or former president; instead the loss presaged by the first play in 2019 — the matriarch, a modern dance luminary named Rose Michael, has cancer — permeates its sequel.

That, in addition to the setting of Angers, France, makes for a departure from the panorama. “What Happened?” may be a mirror of the present, with characters regularly sanitizing their hands and sharing how they passed time in lockdown, but its preoccupations are also comparatively abstract: the loss of life, of youth, of work.

And of Rhinebeck itself. Plunkett said that during a recent rehearsal it hit her: “I found myself tearing up. This specific place that we resided in and explored for a decade — not many people have gotten to do that, and I’m very fortunate. You realize how short a decade is.”

Nelson may return to Rhinebeck in the future — he has written a television series of Chekhov stories set there in the present — but for now “What Happened?” is the last time he is bringing a family together at a dinner table to weave, as the critic Ben Brantley once wrote, “momentous history in the fabric of the quotidian.”

The audience is, as always, invited to the table. “We’re living in a moment of confusion, tragedy and loss, but together,” Nelson said. “We are not alone.”

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