Richard Nelson’s Gabriel family plays, like the Apple family plays before them, are studded with topical political references; Nelson sets each installment on the day of its opening and adds material nearly up to curtain time to make it absolutely current. In What Did You Expect? — the second part of the Gabriel trilogy, which opened last night at the Public Theater — the characters cite Hillary’s pneumonia, Bill’s “creepy” charm, Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon, and liberal panic about the polls. But though these references sparkle brightly, they quickly fade, like tweets. Indeed, for a series subtitled Election Year in the Life of One Family, politics is oddly recessive. Whether Hillary will “be human” in the first debate has no more obvious weight in the 100-minute play than the hundreds of other matters, from historical picnics to Edith Wharton’s pornography, that rise up briefly in the conversation as another meal is prepared in the family’s well-worn kitchen.
But to say that politics in Nelson’s plays is recessive is not to say it is inconsequential. Rather, by exploring the underwater part of the iceberg whose visible tip is politics, he is challenging the idea of what political theater can be. Without debating policy, psychoanalyzing politicians, or fomenting rebellion, his minutely detailed, aggressively nondramatic group portraits of ordinary left-leaning middle-class people in Rhinebeck, New York, demonstrate, at a very fine grain, how control over our lives, and our government, seems to have been outsourced to mysterious other powers. “Who are we?” one character asks. “Is this really our country?”
In the case of What Did You Expect? these questions — and the title question, too — arise with urgency because of an unexpected financial crisis. In Hungry, the first play of the trilogy, we saw what appeared to be the satisfactory resettling of Patricia, the widowed matriarch, into a nice if expensive assisted-living facility nearby. But now her son George and his wife, Hannah, have discovered that, before the move, Patricia, who is 82, was bamboozled into a reverse-mortgage scheme on her house; as a result, she cannot use equity to pay down her mounting debt. The family scrambles to find a solution, but the local economy is not booming except for businesses that service the arriviste community. George and Hannah consider selling the family Bechstein upright piano, which, however, George uses for teaching his students. George’s sister-in-law Mary, still living in Patricia’s house, hopes she may find something valuable to sell among the papers of her late husband, Thomas, who was also Patricia’s son, George’s brother, and a successful playwright. Wait, it gets more complicated: Helping Mary search is Thomas’s first wife, Karin, who has been integrated, somewhat awkwardly, into the ménage. Meanwhile, Thomas’s and George’s sister, Joyce, hasn’t a penny to spare, being an assistant costume designer in New York, and Patricia, deeply ashamed of herself, can only ask, plaintively, “What can I do?” — as much about preparing dinner as about solving the crisis she doesn’t understand how she caused.
You will recognize the macro-issues from the news: eldercare, gentrification, middle-class squeeze. But though the Gabriels are examples (and sometimes victims) of long-term trends going on the country, they do not interpret their lives from that angle. It is through the audience that the play carries out its political agenda. Nelson seems to have calibrated exactly how many topical references (and no more) he must toss into the mix so that we are always subliminally aware of the ideological context; it’s like watching a soap opera with CNN on in the background. Only What Did You Expect? is a lot more entertaining than either soap opera or news. As always in these plays, the extreme naturalism of the writing is made delightful by the intelligence and humor of the characters, whose conversation mostly centers on literature and theater and feminism and food. And it is made compelling by the social drama of prickly people in a small room with knives.
If What Did You Expect? advances the Gabriel narrative into a moment of crisis — part three will open on Election Night — it is not noticeably different in tone from Hungry or, for that matter, from the Apple plays, which concern another Rhinebeck family. The knives that cut the potatoes are never brandished. To keep material that deliberately abjures extremes of expression from turning merely mild, an extreme form of naturalistic acting must take up the slack; as I will eventually get tired of saying, the Public’s cast, under Nelson’s direction, is heartbreaking in its fierce, ordinary believability. (They are Maryann Plunkett as Mary, Roberta Maxwell as Patricia, Jay O. Sanders as George, Lynn Hawley as Hannah, Amy Warren as Joyce, and Meg Gibson as Karin.) But in any case, you don’t come to the Apple or Gabriel plays for their individual qualities as events or for their jaggedly new profiles, any more than you keep spending the holidays with your family because you expect this year’s version to be radically different from last year’s. Rather, you come back for what’s always nearly the same. You come back because you believe, against considerable evidence, that somehow, together, things will be better.
What Did You Expect? is at the Public Theater through October 9.