Review: In "What Happened?" », A questioning farewell to Rhinebeck

Kate, a woman in her sixties, sits alone at a weather-beaten table, the clutter of a cauliflower lasagna largely erased and her dinner m...


Kate, a woman in her sixties, sits alone at a weather-beaten table, the clutter of a cauliflower lasagna largely erased and her dinner mates are now out for the evening. Together, they spent most of the last two hours talking about Rose, Kate’s wife, who six months earlier, while dying of ovarian cancer, had been killed by Covid-19 in the place.

After all these memories, reading letters and even dancing – Rose was a modern dance choreographer – what does Kate do?

Nothing. She sits down, gets up, walks slowly in the kitchen. And yet, for a long minute or two of silence, you see on her face all that she feels, or really, all that she is: grieved but resolute, prickly but proud. It’s wireframe acting at its most subtly jaw-dropping sound, without even the plot twist to hold it down.

Yes “What happened ? : Michaels abroad, Which opened Wednesday night at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College, only gave us another chance to see Maryann Plunkett do nothing, that would have been enough. We’ve watched her do it for 11 years now, playing various characters in Richard Nelson’s 12-piece series “Rhinebeck Panorama”; in this last and last opus, it remains the same wonder as ever.

But it’s not just Plunkett. Jay O. Sanders, her husband, is another dramatic tightrope walker who appeared in The 12 Pieces. Earlier in “What Happened?” he has a scene in which, as David Michael, he has to persuade his daughter, Lucy, to sign papers authorizing the sale of the heavily mortgaged house she grew up in. (David was once married to Rose; Lucy is their daughter.) It’s about as much dramatic action as Nelson ever asked for, and the exchange is strained as a result. Yet the real drama only occurs after Lucy reluctantly agrees. Sanders walks away from victory and, almost unnoticed, lifts a corner of his plaid shirt to wipe his eyes.

Nelson, who directed all 12 pieces in the series, always headed for such moments. His stripped-down dramaturgy asks us to care about the character more than the story, and see the bigger subjects in great detail. Episodes from the lives of his three Rhinebeck families – the Michaels and before them the Apples and the Gabriels, all neighbors of this town 100 miles north of New York City – were, for fans, the best kind of soap opera, despite only taking place in kitchens and with all the hysterical highlights cut off. Even without cliffhangers, these extraordinary pieces forced us on each new visit to remember the situation “when we last left them” and wonder what will happen next.

In “What Happened?”, However, as the title suggests, Nelson is more interested in the immediate past. The last time we left the Michaels, in October 2019, Rose was sick but still domineering, and Kate was hosting a dinner party for her wife’s family and coworkers. Besides David and Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), these were two former Rose dancers: David’s wife, Sally (Rita Wolf) and Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris). There was also Rose’s niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto), as Lucy, a young dancer learning and adapting some of Rose’s classic pieces for a farewell performance.

This piece was captioned “Conversations during difficult timesBut the difficulty of the coronavirus was yet to come. Two years later, in “What Happened?”, We find the same characters mixed in new arrangements. Lucy and May are now in Angers, France, after being stranded by the pandemic at the home of another former Rose dancer, Suzanne Raphael (Yvonne Woods). Although Lucy was unable to attend her mother’s funeral in Rhinebeck earlier in the year, the lifting of some restrictions allowed the rest of the group to travel to France to attend a conference on Rose’s work in a modern dance center.

As confusing as it may sound to step into such a complex set of relationships so abruptly – the play begins with David saying, “One day Kate made your mother speak” – the clarity and patience of the cast quickly pays off. . Watching them put the story together into little memories, like a jigsaw puzzle from the past, I was never less than engaged. To some theatergoers, however, Nelson’s extreme discursiveness will seem exaggerated; how long do you want to watch even the most beautiful and industrious ants dig their way in the sand of an anthill?

Or dance their way. The movement segments in “What Happened? – truly a concert inside the room – to go on too long to sustain the character drama upon which all the effort depends. Although performed with humor by Bydwell and Sakamoto, Rose’s catalog selections, based on Dan Wagoner’s choreography and performed by dance consultant Gwyneth Jones, at times seemed to have been calibrated not for the needs of the piece but for those cooking lasagna in the oven on stage. Lasagna lasts 90 minutes; each, 110.

Still, I found myself agreeing with Irenie, who said at the end of the impromptu concert, “I forgot everything else, everything – watching them dance.”

The whole panorama was built around such moments, where art does not teach a lesson but brings joy or comfort. (Is there a limit to how much we need?) No matter how ready we are to read America’s Greatest Soap through the smaller of Nelson’s three families, he prefers to look in the opposite direction, how our hard times shape individual characters. When the Apples, the Gabriels or the Michaels railed against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Andrew Cuomo, it was to define themselves.

No politician is verified in “What Happened?” – although the title coincidentally echoes that of Clinton’s memories in 2017. If the play abjures overt references to politics, instead taking on a farewell tone like that of the characters, it’s not just because it’s the last in the series but because the conditions that shaped the series have radically changed. exchange. In our new theatrical environment, which values ​​political engagement above all else, his rather daring dramaturgy can now seem not very daring, or daring in a disadvantaged way.

Nelson is doubling down on his position here, not only asking his characters what happened, but also appearing to ask the culture. At one point, David, an artistic director by profession, tells the story of a friend who was forced to quit his job as the head of a New York theater after colleagues complained about his behavior. We never learn what that behavior was, or whether the complaints could have had any merit; all David can say about his friend’s apparent cancellation is “I don’t know,” over and over again, like a litany against disaster.

“I don’t know” is a perfectly human position, but without a safeguard or a pass. In alluding to the cancellation of culture, Nelson may be responding to the critics, including mine, that Rhinebeck’s plays did not sufficiently take into account the movements that have recently shaken American society. It has become increasingly difficult to accept that families like those in Panorama – all leftist and artistically oriented – don’t speak more directly than they do about Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Scott Rudin.

But if “I don’t know” sounds more like a farewell shrug than a resounding peroration on the value of individualism in the face of stacking politics, it fits into the DNA of the Rhinebeck Project. My own (somewhat shaken) faith in individualism, reinforced by the brilliant acting of the actors, leaves me to cherish this series of plays which, even when discussing a struggling nation, viewed individuals – and families – as l crucial unity of liberal society. As for what this vision misses or gets wrong, well, like in families, can’t we love what we don’t always fully agree with?

What happened ? : Michaels abroad
Tickets Until October 8 at the Frederick Loewe Theater, Manhattan; 347-464-8508, huntertheaterproject.org. Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: In "What Happened?" », A questioning farewell to Rhinebeck
Review: In "What Happened?" », A questioning farewell to Rhinebeck
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