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Theater Review: With Regular Singing, One More Bite of the Apple Family

Stephen Kunken, Sally Murphy, and Jon DeVries in Regular Singing, written and directed by Richard Nelson, running at The Public Theater in repertory with The Apple Family Plays. Photo credit: Joan Marcus. Stephen Kunken, Sally Murphy, and Jon DeVries in Richard Nelson's Regular Singing, at the Public.

Like the earlier plays in the Apple Family saga, Regular Singing begins with the rituals of three sisters — bossy Barbara, brittle Marian, and sane Jane — as they deal with food and tablecloths and flowers in a small house on Center Street in Rhinebeck, New York. For audiences who have revisited the Apples each fall since 2010, or watched all four plays in repertory this season, this is by now a ritual of a ritual. Also familiar will be the plays’ many motifs and obsessions: regional history, theatrical stories, gentrification, Kirsten Gillibrand.

Perhaps the most central element of the ritual, though, is vocal music, whether lieder, hymns, or pop. In Regular Singing, the family — which also includes the women’s brother, Richard; their uncle, Benjamin; and Jane’s boyfriend, Tim — is rehearsing the songs that Marian’s ex-husband, whom we have never met but often heard about, wants sung at his funeral. He lies dying, offstage. But then pretty much everything in Apple country happens offstage, or before or between the plays; within the plays themselves, there is not enough action to stock even a single segment of a soap opera. And yet there is a complete world here, or as complete a world as any audience could hope to witness outside its own homes. Admittedly, not all of the Apples’ tales and anecdotes are equally captivating, but that’s part of the way the playwright, Richard Nelson, makes you feel you are at your own family gathering, with all its manic riffs, abandoned feints, self-justifications, and dull longueurs.

That this is an extraordinary achievement has been amply noted in previous reviews and “best of” lists. I come to the table late, having read the first three installments — That Hopey Changey ThingSweet and Sad, and Sorry — but seen only the last. It’s as fine a place to enter as any, though at least on paper Regular Singing is even more uneventful and elegiac than the others. Most (but not quite all) of the family reconfigurations have been settled before it begins. Uncle Benjamin, an actor suffering from some form of amnesiac dementia, has been successfully settled in an assisted living facility. Marian, having lost her daughter to suicide some years back, has more or less permanently moved in with Barbara. (They are both schoolteachers.) Jane and Tim, a writer and a mostly out-of-work actor, have reconnected after a separation and moved to an apartment near the others in Rhinebeck. Only Richard, an attorney torn between public work and private remuneration, remains struggling, at the height of middle age, to fit himself into the puzzle of his life. (He has recently separated from his grasping wife.) In Regular Singing’s most singular moment, his sisters, whipped into a frenzy of concern by Barbara, gang up on him in a kind of intervention that is both loving and witchlike. They nearly eat him alive.

But that’s it. The rest of the intermissionless two-hour play consists of conversations hovering on or around the subject of death. Undoubtedly, Nelson, who also directed, has succeeded in doing what he tells us in an Author’s Note (quoting Harley Granville Barker) he intended: He has written a work “in desperate defiance of Aristotle — from which doing would be eliminated altogether, in which nothing but being would be left.” But making that happen, as he acknowledges, has involved more than just his own skill. The Public Theater made a commitment to produce the plays, one a year, before a word of any of them was written, even setting the opening nights in advance. (Each play takes place in real time on the day it officially opens; Regular Singing, which opened on November 22, considers the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.) Probably no other theater in New York could or would make such a promise.

But it’s nevertheless the actors who have had to make so much “being” out of so little “doing.” In taking that challenge, they’ve had little to fall back upon save one another. The costumes by Susan Hilferty are apt and practical. The set (also by Hilferty) is minimal, its only formal gesture a grid of suspended microphones that visually emphasizes the primacy of conversation in the plays. The lighting by Jennifer Tipton is beautiful but unobtrusive. And there is, to my knowledge, but one sound effect: a plaintive suspiration punctuating the scenes.

And so it has fallen to the six-person cast to create the plays each night. I cannot recall a finer or more extreme example of naturalistic ensemble acting in all my years of theatergoing. I say “extreme” because naturalism actually gets uncomfortable when it seems to shed the protective layer of artifice. It’s not that the metaphorical fourth wall is broken, it’s that it moves behind you intact; you are sealed in the room. As such, each actor is radically exposed, even when not speaking. (You often look to see what the one who’s silent might be thinking.) The burden is thus distributed, with different plays tending to feature different characters. At various times (I gather) Jon DeVries as Uncle Benjamin and Laila Robbins (as Marian) and Jay O. Sanders (as Richard) have taken the spotlight, if there were a spotlight. (Shuler Hensley and J. Smith-Cameron, who played Tim and Jane in previous installments, have been replaced this season by Stephen Kunken and Sally Murphy, both excellent.) But in Regular Singing it’s Maryann Plunkett as Barbara who rivets the attention, in what must be counted among the great stage performances. Kind but tyrannical, aggressively sensitive, she is such an exposed nerve you begin to think you can see beneath her face.

The plays are a kind of exposed nerve, too. There are many comforts — especially of food and music and companionship — but there is no lesson available in all the Apples’ books and hymns and readings from Chekhov to ameliorate the public and private assassinations we must all suffer. Richard comes as close to providing a moral as I suspect Nelson could tolerate: “I wonder if it’s not about trying to heal ourselves,” he says. “But embracing how we cope.” Of course, he’s trying to justify his own weird accommodations, so even this bit of consolation becomes part of a problem he has never actually solved. Indeed, Nelson amply demonstrates throughout the plays the way people keep giving evidence that they remain exactly who they were, as if someone, or life itself, were trying to prove otherwise.

We are stubborn critters, even in our many kindnesses to loved ones and adaptations to the world. To learn this from a play — a form that by general consent is concerned with change — may seem paradoxical. But the stage is itself a wonderful paradox. “It should be the most unnatural place to be,” says Uncle Benjamin, who was once an actor, in a speech Nelson clearly intends as a credo. “But it can be the place where you feel most at home.”

Regular Singing and the three other Apple Family plays are in repertory at the Public Theater through December 15.

Photo: ©2013 Joan Marcus