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Review: Same Apple Family, New Kind of Theater


When your world has turned strange and scary, sometimes just seeing a beloved face from your past is enough to bring tears to your eyes. That was how I felt when Barbara Apple — looking a bit pale and careworn, but unmistakably herself — materialized on my computer screen on Wednesday night.

Barbara had just returned to her home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., after being hospitalized with the coronavirus, and she was eager to be in touch with her family again. But of course making contact with others, even those closest to you, can be a fraught proposition in this beleaguered spring of 2020.

So in the opening moments of “What Do We Need to Talk About?” — the infinitely poignant new play written and directed by Richard Nelson, and presented by the Public Theater — Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and her brother, Richard (Jay O. Sanders), who was staying with her, were reuniting with their siblings via Zoom. This meant there were glass walls between them, and, for that matter, us. But it was better than not connecting at all.

At roughly 7:35 p.m., there — all of a sudden — was Plunkett, streaming in real time (on YouTube), staring into the screen of a laptop as if it were a mirror, before the other performers joined her online. But we the audience were already there, and could watch Barbara, in the very private moment of examining her weathered face.

Barbara, a schoolteacher who is brought to life by Plunkett’s remarkable emotional transparency, is someone you’d never call vain. But she had been dangerously ill, and she was wondering how she would come across in close-up. A situation that many of us now experience every day — prepping for Zoom, Skype or FaceTime — acquired a haunting existential weight.

That process of extracting the cosmic from the mundane is what animates all Nelson’s work, and especially his domestic dramas set in Rhinebeck, which also include the 2016 trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.” These plays all opened at the Public on the day on which they were set. I can’t think of another body of theatrical work that has addressed so immediately, in such quotidian detail, the way we live now.

A sense of the ephemerality of life, and the preciousness of its most prosaic elements, has pervaded all these plays. But it assumes special urgency in this hourlong portrayal of a conversation among Barbara, Richard and their sisters — Marian (Laila Robins) and Jane (Sally Murphy) — and Jane’s boyfriend, Tim (Stephen Kunken).

These people are all within walking distance of one another in Rhinebeck. Yet the times have made physical proximity a hazard. And while Jane and Tim share a home, he appears to have a mild case of the virus, so they are quarantined in separate rooms and talking via separate screens.

And talking has never felt more essential. In “What Do We Need to Talk About?” — a title that would fit any of Nelson’s Rhinebeck plays — it becomes clear that it’s not so much what’s talked about but the act itself that counts most.

Many of the subjects have a ripe familiarity. The matinee-idol ascension of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for whom Richard (a lawyer) works, is a topic. Others are closer to home, including the newly fraught act of grocery shopping; the difficulties of conducting a job remotely; the worries and resentment of younger relatives who feel their adult lives have been blighted just as they were beginning; and, most soberingly, the loss of friends to the virus. (In a typical Nelsonian burring of fictive and real worlds, Tim speaks heartbreakingly of Mark Blum, the invaluable New York actor who died in March.)

But the main thing here is that these people are in conversation, which is in itself an assertion of human life, of community, of our ability to reciprocally confirm one another’s identities. Some of what the Apples discuss here has no obvious immediate relevance. Barbara — deploying a recent classroom exercise inspired by “The Decameron,” Boccaccio’s 14th-century account of refugees from a plague swapping stories to pass the time — has everyone tell a tale of their own.

These varied narratives include Richard’s anecdote about the disastrously incompetent president Franklin Pierce (and, yes, drawing contemporary parallels is invited); Marian’s description of an uncle who inexplicably disappeared from the family; and Tim’s explanation of a new theory for interpreting a play by Chekhov, Nelson’s tutelary god. The diverse stories share a brimming awareness of the mystery and sacredness and transience of individual lives.

Framed, pinned and separated by four merciless individual lenses, the performers are close to perfection. As always in the Apple plays, the cast nails exactly the rhythms of affection and irritation that propel interaction in any family.

Here, that natural flow is tempered and exaggerated by the technology through which it is channeled. And you can sense them all — in particular Ms. Robins’s defensively wry Marian — trying (and failing) to disguise immediate responses to sensitive subjects.

Tim, who was an actor, worries about the survival of his former profession. And since theater occurs in a shared physical space, “What Do We Need to Talk About?” doesn’t exactly qualify, I suppose.

But the theatrical impulse — to celebrate and capture a moment in real time as it passes — is so strong here that, I actually felt I was attending a play. It felt good. Nelson and his team have given me hope that the real thing is still there, nurturing its singular strength and agility, eager to come out of quarantine and meet us face to face.

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