Give thanks this week that the Apples fall among us.
They’re a variety of family whose grown-up members gather, via playwright Richard Nelson’s imagination, in four buoyant and moving plays, on a quartet of days with important links to American electoral history and American tragedy. The first two, “That Hopey Changey Thing” and “Sweet and Sad,” are making their regional debut at Studio Theatre, in what is without question a capital occasion.
The pieces, both performed without intermission, in revolving repertory, are conjoined by more than the umbrella title they’ve been given: “The Apple Family Plays.” Each is built around a meal, served buffet-style in the prim, Rhinebeck, N.Y., dining room of high school teacher Barbara Apple (a warm and appealing Sarah Marshall), her inner circle of siblings and other relatives gathered around to eat and talk.
That’s about it as far as exciting, theatrical sleight-of-hand goes. Yet “The Apple Family Plays” are, in a quiet way, thrilling. Just as the significant national events discussed by the diners occur far away, the dramatic and traumatic turns in the lives of the Apples take place offstage. Here, over plates juggled in laps, the family convenes in ritual American style, out of love and obligation, with all of their own and the country’s problems wafting in gently, resonantly, like aromas from the kitchen. Happily, the playwright’s generosity of spirit allows an audience to feel as if it, too, always has a place at his table.
“That Hopey and Changey Thing” is set on Election Night 2010, the midterm election in which the GOP won back the U.S. House of Representatives; “Sweet and Sad” occurs on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (“Sorry,” the third play in the series, takes place on Election Night 2012, and the final play, “Regular Singing,” which is premiering at New York’s Public Theater, is set on Nov. 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.)
Nelson — whose splendidly bittersweet adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s “The Guardsman” all too quickly disappeared in June from the Kennedy Center — places the dinners on convenient dates not only to explore their meaning but also to expose family fissures. In “Hopey Changey,” for instance, Barbara’s lawyer brother Richard (a craftily abrasive Rick Foucheux) believes that his marriage and liberal politics are under siege. As midterm votes are being cast, he reveals to his sisters that he’s thinking of leaving the employ of Andrew Cuomo — who is about to be elected New York’s governor — to join a high-powered law firm. The disclosure pushes his blunt-spoken lefty sister Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti), who considers anything corporate the enemy of the people, over the partisan edge.
At the heart of Richard’s decision are the looming college bills for his children but, also, a whiff of the nation’s growing political disaffection. In Nelson’s construct, Richard provides a context for the Apples to understand in broad terms the rise of the tea party.
Much in “The Apple Family Plays” unfolds in this two-sided frame of personal and political. The siblings’ Uncle Benjamin, deftly portrayed by Ted van Griethuysen, is a celebrated actor who developed amnesia after a heart attack. His illness is a poignant thread in the plays, because his care is a recurring concern for Barbara, who takes him in, and because his failing memory is the only vehicle for the unlocking of a difficult and disruptive family secret.
Over the course of these meals — served up under the agile direction of Serge Seiden, delivering what may be the subtlest work of his career — the Apples argue and commiserate in a shifting array of emotional and ideological coalitions. The fourth sibling, Jane, played by Kim Schraf, is in some ways the fuzziest character: a writer living in Manhattan and involved with a younger man, perennially out-of-work actor Tim (Jeremy Webb). Jane’s latest idea, which like many others probably won’t pan out, is a book on American manners. In her desire to study national social trends on a cellular level, you wonder if we are being asked to consider whether family dynamics, like those of the Apples, are being dramatized here as a microcosm of the exuberantly messy democracy of the entire American family.
As family dinners tend to, “The Apple Family Plays” bounce with interruptions and anecdotal digressions from topic to topic. One minute the family is puzzling over the political rise of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the next it is ruminating on Uncle Benjamin’s portrayal of Gayev in “The Cherry Orchard.” Allusions to Chekhov could not be more apt: The characters sing to each other, recount bits of family history, discuss locations of interest in the Hudson Valley, all the while drawing us more deeply into an understanding of their worries and insecurities, their alliances and their squabbles.
Seiden astutely keeps histrionics at bay. If, in a few instances, he lets the tug-of-war among these intelligent characters go a little slack, the recovery is rapid. Webb does a fine job, for example, embodying Tim’s considerate nature, his desire not to upstage the siblings in their own comfortable surroundings; Schraf’s fidgety Jane, meanwhile, establishes her as the least emotionally accessible of the siblings. Pierotti brings a welcome comic verve to Marian’s directness and then, after things go badly for her, a palpable sense of distraction and regret. Veteran theatergoers will recognize that van Griethuysen, Foucheux and Marshall are all offering wonderful examples of honest performance, devoid of tics and vanity.
The sets, sound, lighting and costumes are by Studio pros Debra Booth, Erik Trester, Daniel MacLean Wagner and Helen Huang, respectively. As with the actors, their work draws only as much attention as is required. That virtually everything clicks increases one’s eagerness to see Nelson’s parts three and four, the final installments in a series of auspiciously homey family reunions.
by Richard Nelson. Directed by Serge Seiden. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Helen Huang; original music and sound, Erik Trester. Each play runs about 100 minutes. $35-$85 for each play. In rotating repertory through Dec. 29 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org.