Theater Reviews: The Public Opens Hungry and Sends Eclipsed Uptown

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Richard Nelson's Hungry, at the Public. Photo: Joan Marcus

“What the hell happened to history?” asks George Gabriel near the start of Richard Nelson’s new play, Hungry, now at the Public. He’s talking about a renovation at the Franklin D. Roosevelt museum in Hyde Park, which, as far as his family is concerned, has descended, like the democracy it is meant to reflect, from the high plane of values into the muck of politics. With Trumpism in the air, the Gabriels may rightly complain, but the play itself is an example, at the highest level, of the same process. Its thousand acts of extreme daily realism, from chopping vegetables to the constant dance of interpersonal negotiation, amount to a kind of human politics, dramatizing, as many more “dramatic” plays cannot, the historic conflicts and consolations of living in our country right now. 

I don’t think “extreme daily realism” is an exaggeration here. Like many of Nelson’s recent plays, Hungry is set on the day it opened, which in this case was Friday evening; you could imagine the author backstage scribbling last-minute lines about the weather and the recently concluded Republican debate. But the play’s realism is far deeper than its “as it happens” window-dressing. There are no ginned-up revelations or confrontations; aside from a lot of companionable talking and some offstage piano playing, the only action during its 100 minutes is the live preparation, mere feet from your face in the Public’s intimate LuEsther Hall, of a dinner of ratatouille over pasta, salad, fresh bread, and apple crisp. (You can smell the yeast.) The talking ranges over territory both large and small, from the problem of Hillary to the proper thickness of the zucchini slices. There are also seemingly dozens of detours that at first seem anomalous: readings from vintage books of housewifery, descriptions of internet scams, complaints about rich weekenders taking over the town. But these digressions eventually join the mainstream of the conversation in a mighty flow of live emotion whose subtitle might be What Happened to Our Country?

In fact, Hungry is the first play in a trilogy called The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family; the remaining installments will open in September and on election night in November. The play’s melancholy setup helps make the connection between family and country immediately palpable: the Gabriels have gathered at their Rhinebeck homestead on this particular day to scatter the ashes of George’s brother, Thomas, a playwright and novelist who died four months earlier. In attendance, besides George, are his sister, Joyce, a costume designer; their mother, Patricia, who naps through much of the play; George’s wife, Hannah, who works for a local caterer; Thomas’s widow, Mary, a retired doctor; and, awkwardly, Thomas’s first wife, Karin, an actress, who can’t quite decide (and no one will tell her) whether she’s in the way. Karin, the outsider, engenders some lively social comedy but also helps the audience negotiate the new terrain; we learn about the sore spots and long-running grudges much as she does, and absorb them as silently. Joyce hasn’t visited her mother enough; her mother constantly criticizes Joyce; Mary can’t say no to anyone’s needs but her own; Hannah is Mary’s anger interpreter; and all of them gang up on George. 

If this doesn’t sound like completely new terrain, there’s a reason. From 2010 to 2013, the Public presented Nelson’s so-called Apple plays, a tetralogy covering similar territory, both stylistically and emotionally. Geographically, too: The Gabriels live on South Street, a real street in Rhinebeck that intersects Center Street, home of the Apples. If they don’t know each other literally, they would surely recognize each other’s lives. Both families are middle-class, educated, and cultured, with connections to the arts; politically, they are liberal Democrats confused by the limits of liberalism and looking, in general, to do the right thing within their ability to see it. In other words, it’s safe to say, they are much like the audience except for where they live. That slight displacement is a brilliant touch, eliminating the possibility of satire and engaging the natural human desire to understand people who are different but not too different. Superbly performed, under the playwright’s invisible direction, by Maryann Plunkett as Mary, Jay O. Sanders as George, Lynn Hawley as Hannah, Amy Warren as Joyce, Meg Gibson as Karin, and Roberta Maxwell as Patricia, Hungry may abjure cheap theatrics but nevertheless provides the occult kick of a thriller. You watch it thinking, “Hey, don’t I know you?”

* * *

The front cover of the Playbill for the Broadway production of Eclipsed, which opened tonight, features the beautiful face of its star, Lupita Nyong’o, looking worried. The back cover, an ad for Lancôme, also features Nyong’o, smiling broadly. No doubt the back cover subsidized the front, because the chances of a play like Eclipsed getting to Broadway without a star of Nyongo’s current cachet are nil. Eclipsed is about Liberian women forced into sex slavery during that country’s mad civil war. And while it has moments of lightheartedness, and a wind-up that could conceivably be called hopeful (the war, after all, does end), most of the play, by Danai Gurira, is crushingly sad; what else could it be? So let us be grateful to 12 Years a Slave, the Academy Awards, and Advanced Génifique Youth Activating Serum for allowing a moving and must-see production to move and be seen. 

And also to improve. When an earlier version of this production opened in October at the Public, I found it admirable despite its schematic treatment of the four main women and, in the second act, its uncertainty of tone. A fifth character, a representative of the Liberian Women’s Initiative, seemed less like a real person than a dramatic tool dropped in from a different play’s toolbox. The acting, especially by Nyong’o as someone known only as the Girl until she becomes Wife No. 4 to a rebel commander, was more than enough to make up for those problems; her scenes with the sensational Saycon Sengbloh as Wife No. 1 had the kind of double intensity that epic drama can sometimes achieve when you believe the characters to exist as individuals while at the same time accessing the power of archetypes. 

If anything, this dynamic has only deepened, even as the play’s more awkward elements have been partly smoothed over. Whether because the cast members have had more time to move into their roles, or because the director, Liesl Tommy, has tightened an already tight production, or because Gurira has adjusted the script (though I couldn’t find any substantive changes), the drama feels less like a parable and more like something that could have happened in more or less this manner. In some ways, a bigger theater, usually thought to be the bane of Off Broadway transfers, actually supports that improvement, creating a better fit between the size of the characters and of the audience. (The apt physical production is largely unchanged.) But what’s most noticeably different is happening right at the center of the show: Nyong’o has managed to burrow further into her portrayal of the Girl, a feat that did not seem possible back in October. The intelligence and variety of her choices, the naturalism of her reactions to trauma, the fear constantly leaking through her bravado: All are deeper now. Meanwhile, her star power — incongruous glamour ads and all — is not to be ignored. It doesn’t just make a production like this possible; it makes it legible, to the back of the theater and, more importantly, to the back of our souls. It asks, on behalf of women like this, a world away, “Shouldn’t you know me?”

Hungry is at the Public Theater through March 27.
Eclipsed is at the Golden Theater through June 19.