NEW YORK — I know the older couple in “Pictures From Home” so well, it’s as if I’ve spent half a lifetime trying to avoid them at Thanksgiving dinners. As played by Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker, they’re the brittle exemplars of a bygone American generation that had to work so hard for middle-class stability it left little room in their hearts for anything else.
But if Irving and Jean Sultan come tempestuously into view in Sharr White’s intermittently satisfying play — which had its official Broadway opening Thursday at Studio 54 — the motivations of their adult son Larry (Danny Burstein) remain oddly blurry. Why would a revered photography professor devote eight years of his career, with oceans of time away from his own wife and sons, to torture his parents with endless sessions in front of his cameras? (And why, for that matter, would they agree?)
It so happens that the Sultans’ story is a true one; Larry Sultan in 1992 published a critically lauded book of these images that he called, yes, “Pictures From Home.” Emblematic of some idealized element in our national character — a penchant, especially, for an ennoblement of the aspirational American father — Sultan’s photos do hold us. They’re striking in their banality, in much the way the classic PBS verité documentary “An American Family” captivated viewers in the early 1970s with the humdrum turmoils in the lives of another California family, the Louds.
Or so “Pictures From Home” takes pains to persuade us. The playwright, and director Bartlett Sher, conceive of the 95-minute play as a kind of seminar on the trials of an artist, maintaining his professional composure while working through his rawest feelings about his subjects. This has obvious academic connotations, as illustrated in the frequent instructional asides that Burstein’s Larry and his parents direct at us. Onto a huge screen on Michael Yeargan’s avocado-colored set — which craftily mimics the Sultan pictures’ pastels and saturated colors — Larry’s photos and the family home movies are projected. The enlargements imbue the images with the qualities of a PowerPoint presentation of epic proportions.
White is onto something fascinating about how Larry’s project lays bare the frailty of the value system that has propelled the Sultans to material success. “It’s like this extraordinary myth of America unfolding in front of us,” Larry says, as a super 8 film depicts the family’s mid-century move from Brooklyn to the San Fernando Valley. Irving professes not to know what the heck his son is talking about — “They’re just movies, Larry!” — and in this chasm of perception, White is identifying a generational divide. For Irving, the medium is simply a means of remembering; for Larry the medium is the message.
The family disconnect is a roiling source of both the comic and tragic dimensions of the play. “It’s like he’s been investigating us!” Lane’s Irving, silver-haired and track-suited, whines hyper-dramatically to Wanamaker’s svelte, immaculately coifed Jean. Irving is in high dudgeon for large stretches of “Pictures From Home,” an agitated state Lane wears as comfortably as an old robe. Lane is a maestro of the put-down, too, which makes his Irving highly entertaining, but it turns ever uglier, as Irving stews over Larry’s insufficient appreciation for Irving’s success.
A “Death of a Salesman” vibe runs through the evening: Irving was a sales executive for a razor blade manufacturer until he was summarily booted, and Jean still works as a real estate agent — a job that she clings to, it seems, for the time off she needs from bombastic Irving. Wanamaker, a British American actress of protean gifts, is a marvel as Jean, a woman with whom we easily empathize, who has raised three sons and now feels she’s earned the right to live, to the degree she’s able, the way she wants.
Burstein has the toughest assignment. Even though we’re aware at the outset of the success of Larry’s endeavor, the stress it places on him and his parents seems awkwardly and punishingly intense: the photo sessions, in White’s account, regularly result in shouting matches and someone storming out of the room. Burstein expertly portrays Larry’s struggle to maintain a researcher’s distance, but the character’s fixation on the older couple comes across as close to obsessive.
And then, in the final movements of the play, as everyone ages and a sentimental reflection on mortality kicks in, it all gets a bit icky. “Pictures From Home” is a far richer experience when it doesn’t shift into soft focus.
Pictures From Home, by Sharr White. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Set, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still. About 95 minutes. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. picturesfromhomebroadway.com.