After the opening-night audience at Women of a Certain Age gave the cast a well-deserved standing ovation and started to file out of the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall, ushers could be heard whispering, “It’s not good.” They didn’t mean the play, which, like its two predecessors in Richard Nelson’s Gabriel family trilogy, is a monument — now a sad monument — to the values of humanism and naturalism onstage and elsewhere. They were referring, rather, to the election results, which had begun to arrive during the play’s 110 minutes, while the audience was on cell phone blackout. Those 110 minutes would, for several reasons, soon come to seem like a last meal before a hanging. By the time the crowd emptied into the Public’s lobby, where the trappings of a party (including bright-blue cocktails) seemed to clash with the MSNBC feed on a huge TV screen set up in anticipation of a Democratic victory, the would-be revelers were stony. I saw more than one critic cry.
I had already done that. Like the other Gabriel plays, which together are subtitled Election Year in the Life of One Family, this one is set on the very night of its opening, and is thus automatically infused with immense anxiety. As the lights come up, most of the Gabriels have voted, all for Hillary, some holding their noses. Though Nelson kept rewriting nearly until curtain, they all still assume that she will win. In the future this will add an almost unbearable layer of irony to the play, but it’s fairly unbearable, in the sense of heartbreaking, anyway. Even if it weren’t so despairing about some of the largest issues we face today — income inequality, the erosion of communal values, the role of art in a democratic society — the astonishingly full and fine-grained performances of the six-person cast, under Nelson’s direction, are almost too much to handle.
Not that very much happens. As always, the action is limited to conversations over real-time dinner preparations in the Gabriels’ Rhinebeck home. If the texture of Nelson’s scrapbook dramaturgy is shaggier this time than usual, the stakes are compensatorily higher: The family, despite their sophistication and good liberal values, are soon to be dispossessed. Mary, 61, the central figure, is still mourning her husband, Thomas, a playwright now dead one year; she has let her medical license lapse. Thomas’s brother, George, also 61, has seen his work as a furniture-maker dry up; George’s wife, Hannah, has been forced to moonlight as a maid at the nearby Rhinecliff Hotel. Joyce, Thomas’s sister, a costume designer with barely two cents to her name, is visiting from New York City, and Patricia, Thomas’s mother, is recovering from a stroke. Also in residence is Thomas’s first wife, Karin — Mary was his third — who has been helping the family go through Thomas’s things but must now find a new place to live. Alas, she’s an actress “of a certain age,” so one of the few parts she is able to get is as Hillary Clinton, in a one-woman show of her own devising.
Despite that drollness, and the frequent laughs, the tone of Women of a Certain Age is not only grimmer but angrier than it was in Hungry (which opened in March) and What Did You Expect? (which opened in September). Patricia, now sharing a room at an assisted-living facility, has dreams in which her roommate tells her to jump out the window. George and Hannah’s son, Paulie, whom we don’t meet, is furious that his parents are “going to let them fuck Grandma over” by taking back the house. (“Who’s them?” Hannah asks.) But the play’s greatest fury is reserved for the gentrification and greed that are squeezing tenuously middle-class people like the Gabriels out. In this context, real-estate brokers are ghouls. The one who has the listing for the house already acts as if he owns it. Another tries to get a shot at the commission by insinuating himself into the ménage. “Buzzards,” George calls them. And everyone knows that whoever buys the place is likely to tear it down to its foundations and build something much bigger and gaudier anyway.
Nelson’s epigraph to the play is from The Cherry Orchard, but he evidently thinks that mere Chekhovian melancholy is insufficient to our times. The Gabriels, unlike the faded gentry of prerevolutionary Russia, are not effete or lazy: They have worked hard, played by the rules, and lived unpretentiously. That’s no longer enough. Discussing their books and cooking their homey meals, the family, and by extension the American middle class, has, as George says, “gone backwards.” Or as Mary wonders, “What have we become?” They do not recognize a world in which a Donald Trump can be running for president, and perhaps mercifully, we do not have to see them discover that he wins. Already, watching the play, I felt that the anarchic spirit of Trumpism had somewhat overwhelmed Nelson’s playwriting levees, allowing him to wallow in an exaggeratedly dark caricature of the forces at play. Realtors may be opportunistic, but evil?
And yet Trump is, in essence, a real-estate broker. And as events now seem likely to prove, Nelson did not exaggerate. Nor is he so doctrinaire as to suggest that the coarsening of the right is not accompanied by, and perhaps abetted by, a coarsening of the left. In Karin’s one-woman play, she quotes the feisty, anti-corporate commencement address, itself quoting a poem by Nancy Schreiber, that Hillary Rodham delivered to her Wellesley graduating class of 1969: “My entrance into the world of so-called social problems / Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all. / The Hollow Men of anger — and bitterness / Must be left to a bygone age.” We know where those “hollow men” are, but where, Hannah asks, “is this Hillary?” And where, Nelson asks, are we?
Women of a Certain Age is at the Public Theater through December 4. Marathons of the three Gabriel plays will be presented on December 10, 11, 14, 17, and 18.
*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.