Wednesday, March 23, 2016


The Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, has just finished scattering the ashes of Thomas, one of its men, on the shores of the Hudson. Now that the simple ceremony has ended, they have retreated to the house Thomas shared with his third wife, Mary. Together, they gather around Mary's large wooden table to reminisce, mourn, catch up, listen to music, and set about preparing a nice dinner for themselves. Bread dough is kneaded and popped into the oven; vegetables for ratatouille are peeled, chopped, tossed in olive oil, and set on a burner; apples are peeled, chopped, and tossed in lemon juice for a crumble; bottles of red and white wine are poured. The family members chat in the sort of wide-ranging and amiable, ambling way people who are comfortable with one another tend to: one topic segues easily into another, doubles back, segues again. There are things someone wants to push further and things someone doesn't want to talk about; there are digressions and thoughtful pauses and reiterations. No topic is especially revelatory or unique; there are no Big Dramatic Moments or Deep Secrets That Get Revealed. Instead, topics include exactly the sort you'd expect people to discuss while they're sitting around shooting the shit for a while at a gathering: interfamily dynamics, work, local and national politics, Hillary and Donald and feeling the Bern, what old friends and acquaintances have been up to, how to properly chop the vegetables, the good old days, the way things have been changing around these parts. When dinner is ready, the family retreats from the kitchen into the dining room to eat, and that's when the play ends; only the faint smell of freshly baked bread remains.

Joan Marcus
"Yeah, but how is that a play?" my husband asked when I arrived home to tell him about Hungry, Richard Nelson's beautifully acted first installment in a planned trilogy--collectively titled "Election Year in the Life of One Family"--about the Gabriels. If you agree with his reaction, I'd strongly recommend that you skip this one--and the two Gabriel family plays to follow at the Public this September and November. But if the chance to be a fly on the wall in the kitchen of a fairly typical white, middle-class, contemporary American family appeals to you, Hungry will satisfy your soul.

I'd never before seen a Richard Nelson play, but his reputation preceeds him. I knew that he'd done a series of plays like this before--his four so-called Apple family plays, written between 2010 and 1013, focused on the fictional Apple family, also from Rhinebeck, during important moments in contemporary American politics. And I knew that many of my friends and colleagues, all avid theatergoers whose wide-ranging tastes I trust and respect, find Nelson's plays to be indulgent, pointless, boring wastes of time. I was fully prepared to feel much the same way, and am, frankly, still a little surprised that I didn't.

Hungry is slow and ruminative, for sure--it's not paced like most plays are, which is to say that nothing really happens except chat and chopping and kitchen work. But I found myself mesmerized by this small, quiet play, which was so expertly, realistically and convincingly directed by the playwright and performed by an almost all-female, universally strong, cast of six: Mary Ann Plunkett, Roberta Maxwell, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley, Amy Warren, and Meg Gibson. There is something beautiful about a quiet, unspoken celebration of so-called "women's work," and the peaceful synchronicity that results from it.

Watching people sitting around and chatting for almost two hours is most certainly not for everyone, and I came away from Hungry keenly aware of the reasons why Nelson's plays tend to be very mixed, reception-wise. If, and only if, what I've described above appeals to you, I'd recommend this one; if it doesn't, you'll likely be bored to tears. Me? I came away feeling real affection for the Gabriel family. I am looking forward to visiting with them again when the next two plays open, and the 2016 presidential election looms ever larger.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a curious craving for ratatouille and fresh bread.

No comments: