The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Playwright Richard Nelson ends his epic cycle of hyper-realistic drama with — what else? — a global pandemic

From left, Yvonne Woods, Rita Wolf, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Matilda Sakamoto, Haviland Morris and Charlotte Bydwell in a scene from “What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” written and directed by Richard Nelson. (Jason Ardizzone-West)

NEW YORK — Over the course of a dozen plays, Richard Nelson has been dishing out current and family affairs, across chummy dinner tables and elegiac Zoom calls. His epic cycle began with "That Hopey Changey Thing" way back on election night 2010, in the heady heyday of the Obama administration. It ends now in the mournful uncertainties of "What Happened? The Michaels Abroad," set on Sept. 8, 2021, the 18th month of a global pandemic.

Backdrop is everything in the hyper-realistic dramas that have come to be collectively known as the Rhinebeck Panorama: The gatherings of the Rhinebeck, N.Y., families in the series — first the Apples, then the Gabriels, now the Michaels — are specific down to the day and always informed by headline events. In this beautiful capstone work, though, the sense is not so much a resolution as a dissolving; the characters of “What Happened?” have become unmoored, as if the isolation of the pandemic has caused some permanent psychic dislocation. That the family’s work is in the performing arts adds another layer to the theme.

Nelson’s aesthetic in these plays has been so demonstrably uniform — and to some who are easily made antsy, so defiantly talky — that an audience member either commits or tunes out. (Among the more confounding signatures is his insistence that the casts not concern themselves with vocal projection, the better to approximate normal conversation.) I long ago happily surrendered to Nelson’s conceits, and so for this 12th play, as the actors marched on in familiar fashion, carrying the place settings and ingredients of a meal, I felt ensconced in a welcome space.

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The space in this instance is the Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College, a public institution on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where Broadway director Gregory Mosher heads the theater department. Nelson had a long association with Public Theater in New York, but after producing the dramatist’s first Zoom play of his Panorama in May 2020, they parted company, and Nelson produced the second and third independently online. (Intriguingly, in “What Happened?” there is a reference to a longtime theater hand who questions his own values after being criticized and compelled to resign by his theater company.)

Coming back to in-person performances in Mosher’s theater provides a pleasing rehoming; Jennifer Tipton’s warm lighting and Jason Ardizzone-West’s resonant, in-the-round scenic design reinforce the intimacy of the occasion. That two of Nelson’s touchstone actors — the forever outstanding Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders — take their places, as they have in each of the Rhinebeck families, accords the endeavor a solid anchoring.

The occasion involves a Rhinebeck play that occurs not at all in Rhinebeck: a dinner in the apartment of Suzanne (Yvonne Woods), a former dancer turned teacher, in a dance school in Angers, France, two hours outside of Paris. Sanders’s David Michael is here with his second wife Sally (Rita Wolf), to see his grown daughter Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), a dancer who’s been teaching in Angers as well. The overarching context is the covid-19 death of David’s first wife and Lucy’s mother, Rose, a tempestuous choreographer who founded a celebrated modern dance company. Plunkett’s Kate has also arrived, a retired history teacher who fell in love with Rose and married her, after Rose fell ill with cancer.

Playwright Richard Nelson’s intention: “Not real, but truth.”

These character schematics might portend an evening of emotional fireworks. But that is not the style of Nelson, who also serves as director. Though the embers of unhappiness smolder, the sparks are smothered in the reticence of enduring if wary affection. The ensemble expertly walks the line of how much needs to be said. As if the intimations of Chekhov weren’t apparent enough — Nelson directed his own translation of “Uncle Vanya” to acclaim in this space — the playwright includes a nod to “The Cherry Orchard,” in a detail about a Michael family property being sold to rich Rhinebeck arrivistes.

The suppleness of these portraits yields all sorts of enriching details, many of them about Rose, the play’s unseen central character. At a particularly haunting moment, Plunkett’s Kate produces a bequest from Rose for Rose’s niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto), who is also a dancer. The gift is one of Rose’s costumes, but it’s Bydwell’s Lucy who ends up wearing it. As she dances in it, vibrantly, alongside May, you could swear the ghost of Rose — and all who have been lost to this seemingly endless scourge of a virus — dances with them.

What Happened? The Michaels Abroad, written and directed by Richard Nelson. Lighting, Jennifer Tipton; set, J●ason Ardizzone-West; costumes, Susan Hilferty; sound, Will Pickens. With Haviland Morris. About 1 hour 50 minutes. $17.50 to $39.50. Through Oct. 8 at Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College, 119 E. 68th St., New York.

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