Theater in exile does not mean a world without “theater.” That much is clear after the premiere on Wednesday of Richard Nelson’s riveting new drama, “What Do We Need to Talk About? Conversations on Zoom.” In 60 lyrical minutes, author-director Nelson and five veteran stage actors show us how potently a digital conferencing platform can work as a space for a play.
Quotation marks appear in my preceding paragraph, around the word connoting a performative art that currently is shifting to the Internet — a whole field with a kind of refugee status. Because theater on the Web can never really be “theater.” The cameras through which this Zoom play was live-streamed Wednesday — and will remain archived on the Web through Sunday — are a filter between actor and audience. They narrow your gaze, demand you see only what the screen allows. That’s an art form based on a primarily visual experience, not a communal one.
Sitting or reclining alone in a room, disconnected from other audience members, you watch and listen to a play under different conditions. The sensation is like being entrusted individually with a secret rather than collectively hearing a shout.
But Nelson, in collaboration with the Public Theater, uses Zoom so effectively as the scaffolding of his play, you feel as if ground is being broken for a most practical use of the platform as a theater alternative. It’s the first time that I’ve sat through a digitally presented work of dramatic art that probably would not be more successful on a stage.
It’s also the first time, for me, that faces in the gallery view on Zoom truly come across as characters, rather than as actors reciting lines. This is partly attributable to the fact that the characters are so familiar to Nelson, his performers, and to us. In a series of stage plays that debuted over years at the Public, the dramatist chronicled the mealtime gatherings of these grown Apple siblings in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Typically, these dinners took place on significant American dates, such as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and Election Day 2016.
For “What Do We Need to Talk About?,” the dramatic situation migrates to the Web and our current national isolation. The time is April 2020, when the Apples are in their various homes, continuing their get-together tradition on Zoom. This one occurs on the day the oldest sibling, Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) has been released from the hospital, recovering from covid-19. The virus is never named, because why would that even be necessary?
Her brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders) is staying with Barbara. In other Zoom tiles, their sisters Marian (Laila Robins) and Jane (Sally Murphy) enter the conversation, with Jane’s partner, Tim (Stephen Kunken), beaming in from another room in his and Jane’s house. Tim’s got a fever and is quarantining himself. (A sixth character, the Apples’ late uncle Benjamin, is heard on a recording in the voice of Jon DeVries.)
Rather than a play about the circumstances dictated by the virus, though, “What Do We Need to Talk About?” concerns itself more fundamentally — and entrancingly — with the deeper need we all harbor, to tell and be told stories. The talk veers in this clan of teachers, state officials, writers and actors from humdrum subjects such as grocery shopping during a pandemic to more cerebral topics like “The Decameron.” Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of stories, erotic and fantastical, recounted during a plague, provides a template here. The siblings go around the digital circle, entertaining one another with stories.
The mood gets lighter at times, but “What Do We Need to Talk About?” never lapses into broad comedy, or sentimentality. These characters all recognize one another’s irritations and delights down to the arch of an eyebrow and the pause in a thought — details you might not be able to see in a theater. They also listen to one another, and that concentration in itself is a tonic, a kind of blessing at a time when it may feel hard to be heard.
“You can’t despair 24 hours a day,” says Kunken’s Tim, a sometimes-employed actor who has been forced to close the bistro he has been running. The remark has both a modern ring and a plaintive echo of Chekhov, on whose work Nelson has sometimes leaned.
The actors appear in the foreground of warm, handsome rooms, with contemporary art and photos on the walls. The performances are nuanced works of art themselves, and one of the advantages of a Nelson play online is that you can hear them all clearly. In a theater, the playwright-director tends to place idiosyncratic acoustic demands on audiences, with sound designs created to replicate the natural volume changes in normal conversation. It’s a relief to have that obstacle removed.
Plunkett, as she has in other Nelson plays, continues to be a galvanizing presence as Barbara. It’s her solo visage that begins the play. She stares into the screen, examining her own features. You come to wonder: Is it her brush with mortality she’s contemplating? Sanders, Murphy, Kunken and Robins all have persuasive moments in which they reveal their characters’ wryness, defensiveness, wisdom, exhaustion. But most of all, their delight in one another.
This is indeed one of the most Chekhovian of Nelson’s Rhinebeck plays, a cycle that also includes other families, talking together on other nights. On this night, the poignant philosophy of “Uncle Vanya’s” Sonia echoes in a viewer’s ears, the fervent one that says despite adversity: Yes, we will go on.
What Do We Need to Talk About? Conversations on Zoom, written and directed by Richard Nelson. About 60 minutes. Streaming free online through Sunday on publictheater.org and YouTube.
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