Tuesday, October 04, 2016

What Did You Expect?

In Richard Nelson's Hungry, which ran at the Public last spring, the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, had just finished scattering the ashes of their brother / husband / ex-husband / son / brother-in-law Thomas on the shores of the Hudson River. Six months have passed between then and now, and here the Gabriels are, again sprawled around the same table in the family homestead where Thomas lived until his death with his third wife, Mary, who continues to hold down the fort. This time preoccupied with prepping both dinner and a picnic planned for tomorrow, the Gabriels chop and mix and stir while chatting about a wide range of subjects, ranging from old family stories to whether the potato salad needs more mustard to national politics to financial concerns to whether or not they should open another bottle of wine. In short, What Did You Expect? finds the Gabriels more or less the same as we left them at the end of Hungry, if perhaps more tired, more anxious, a little sadder.

Can you blame them, really, given the state of the world right now? What did you expect, indeed?

Joan Marcus
I'll admit it: As moved and impressed as I was by Hungry, and as eager as I was to get tickets to the second and third installments of Nelson's sold-out cycle about the Gabriel family, I found that I wasn't particularly eager to see What Did You Expect? once showtime came around. Lord knows we've all had a long, unpleasant, exceedingly rocky six months of news that's ranged from bad to worse to hide-under-the-bed-and-hyperventilate awful; by showtime, the prospect of sitting and watching a middle-class American family sitting and talking--about politics, no less!--came to seem more psychically exhausting than I felt I could handle. I was wrong, of course, just as I was wrong in assuming, prior to seeing Hungry, that watching people talk and make dinner would put me to sleep.

Nelson's process, which you can learn more about here, makes for remarkably up-to-date theater; in rehearsals and being frantically rewritten up until opening night, What Did You Expect? was frozen on September 16th, and takes place just prior to the first presidential debate. But the Gabriels' conversation goes no deeper into politics than your average American family's does, and this turns out to be both curiously reassuring and precisely the point. The Gabriels are certainly concerned about the upcoming election, but they're also preoccupied by a multitude of other matters, all of which are discussed at length, if never neatly, stagily, artificially resolved.

Thomas's mom, Patricia, can no longer live on her own, but her room at the retirement home costs a lot more than the Gabriels had anticipated or find they can afford. Thomas's first wife, Karin, has started renting a room in the Gabriel house, which helps the retired Mary a little with finances. Thomas's brother, George, and sister-in-law, Hannah, might sell or rent their place nearby and move in with Mary too, since the old-age home and their only son's college tuition have them sliding dangerously toward deep debt by the day. Thomas's sister, Joyce, needs to leave early to get back to Brooklyn for work; she's a little tense, especially since she and her mother haven't been getting along too well. The whole family is surprised and saddened by just how quickly their beloved piano, sold to cover some of mom's nursing home expenses, was snapped up by an aspiring (and clearly moneyed) opera singer studying nearby at Bard College. There's the growing class divide in the Hudson Valley, a picnic tomorrow with people George and Hannah aren't quite sure they like or trust just yet, and, of course, the national mood. One of the characters neatly sums up this last concern by musing over how scared everyone she knows is, and how dirty they all claim to feel lately.

What Did You Expect?, directed with great sensitivity by the playwright, and superbly performed by the company, demonstrates just how much weight even the most mundane of conversations can take on. Talk around the table--whether about town gossip, new acquaintances, old memories, or what various younger-generation Gabriels are up to these days--yields a deeply probing portrait of a close-knit, contemporary, white, middle-class family living in turbulent and unsettling times. It's a testament to the playwright and his players that the show--essentially a bunch of aging white people quietly chatting and chopping for nearly two hours--feels as genuine, familiar, moving, and revelatory as the Gabriel cycle does so far. The Gabriels may not be real, but their conversation sure feels like it is. It speaks volumes about who we are and how we're doing as the darkness settles over the nation. How curious, rare, and strangely comforting it is to connect with characters who don't offer pat, stagey morals or easy platitudes before the final curtain. The Gabriels are weary and concerned and a little bit lost, but then, their audiences are, too. I'm hoping that for all they're going through--for all the bruises life has handed them lately--the Gabriels will be okay as long as they hold on to each other. Believe me when I tell you that I've been hoping as much for us all.  

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