Most of the Richard Nelson Rhinebeck plays — the ones performed in-person — start the same way. As a plaintive pop song plays, the actors prepare the in-the-round set: They unroll rugs, place bowls and silverware, and move chairs into position. The structure is in place for them already — a simple, functional kitchen with a sink, a stove — but the ensemble adds the homey touches. Then, in each of the twelve plays in Nelson’s sometimes moving, sometimes mawkish cycle, a Hudson Valley family gathers to eat and to talk about their shared past and the uncertain future.
Plays usually gestate slowly, so even the most topical ones will make references that are years out of date. But these supernaturalistic Nelsoniad episodes are always set on the show’s own opening date, with textual adjustments happening till the last moment before curtain. I was at a Nelson play on election night in 2016, watching actors pretend to be a bunch of nervous Democrats waiting for the vote tallies, as I — and all the nervous Democrats around me at the Public Theater — tried not to check our phones. Nelson’s radical sense of this-is-exactly-now-ness is enhanced by a few staging tricks (cooking food in real time, for instance) and a strong company of actors, gifted at erasing any sense of pretense as they murmur to one another. For his Rhinebeck Panorama, Nelson started with a quartet of Apple Family plays, then wrote and directed a trilogy about the Gabriels. During the shutdown, he extended the Apple Family sequence with a trio of Zoom pieces. In 2019, he introduced his third Hudson Valley family, the Michaels, and with What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad, he finishes the sprawling Rhinebeck project at last.
This time the wooden table and faded rugs are in France, rather than Rhinebeck, but the characters are all still full of New York concerns. As he does in many of his Chekhovian not-quite-plots, Nelson puts real estate at the root of many sorrows, so here there’s a fraught moment when a father, David (Jay O. Sanders), needs his daughter Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) to sign away a house. Lucy’s mother, Rose, a choreographer, has died of COVID, and a few of her ex-dancers; her ex-husband, David; and her widow, Kate (Maryann Plunkett) have all gathered overseas to see Lucy and her cousin May (Matilda Sakamoto) dance in a showcase that honors Rose’s long-ago career. The members of this middle-aged fellowship talk about their recent past under lockdown and their more distant past as a company, trying to paper over bereavement with warmth and shared memories and extravagant praise for Lucy, a youngish talent wise enough to worship their old work.
According to Nelson’s program note, his company’s goal is “to be as opposed to do,” an ambition that relies on a certain sense of reflection — a thinner than usual division between the writer and his creations, between his slice-of-life characters and his intended audience. The Michaels et al. talk about how much they have missed being in a theater together, and the show clearly expects that sentiment to echo. What Happened? also evokes a sense of pandemic suspension — no one quite knows what they will do with their lives — and there is some pointed, even aggrieved, concern about the changing moral and aesthetic landscape. David talks about a friend of his, an artistic director, who has left his theater after a staff rebellion, part of a wave of racial re-reckoning. “I didn’t think I ran a ‘white theater,’” this friend said to David, baffled by the discontent and his own inability to address it.
Lucy’s uncomplicated adoration of her mother’s choreography sometimes rings theatrically false, but this sense of outraged complaint sounds like the real thing. The night I saw it, there were at least three white male artistic directors in the audience, and in addressing them (or cribbing from them?) the wistful play dares to become quite uncomfortable. Throughout the play, Nelson embroiders a theme of unacknowledged work; other characters also talk about various labors-of-art and their anger at being swept aside after decades. The others nod in sympathy with David and his friend, but how keenly are we meant to regret this sumptuous “exile,” which will include a new artistic directorship (for the friend) and this beautiful, honey-colored evening in France (for David)? The younger characters, who might have had their own thoughts on the subject, are, just then, offstage.
If you have never seen one of the Rhinebeck series before, I wouldn’t start here. There is a heaviness in its step, despite the frequent dance interludes (based on Dan Wagoner’s choreography), and a weariness that goes beyond Nelson’s usual watercolor poignancy. This final play is not the cycle’s strongest, nor are the Michaels and their friends his best drawn characters. (Despite his careful researcher’s eye, Nelson does not see very clearly into the world of dance.) You aren’t getting a clean shot of Nelson’s immersive realism either: The twelvefold repetition of Nelson’s formal strategies has not polished them but rather worn them thin. Every time a character tells a story, he or she gives a little throat-clearing introduction (“Had you heard this? Did we ever tell you…?”). What was once a savvy naturalistic trick has become a tic, and a sameness now smears over his creations — old and young — as they all speak in this same, hesitant rhythm.
Yet What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad isn’t meant to stand alone. You measure it with its eleven fellows: It points back at the entire project, asking us to see it in a frame together. If you’ve seen the whole pack, even this lighter offering takes on weight and power. There’s something archaeologically patient about the way Nelson has lifted himself and his Rhinebeck-mind to the light, dusted it off, considered it. What has he worked out in this long contemplation? Well, it’s notable that this play is a farewell, bid just as the rest of the theatrical world nervously says hello. The play concludes with the elders leaving to go see the younger women at their recital. There is art happening and a future at hand, but this warm kitchen isn’t going to be the place for it anymore.
Ultimately, the show functions more as collective mourning than a play — at one point, the characters raise a glass to all those who have died during the pandemic, and people all around me wept in response. Elegy is (as ever) Nelson’s dominant key, which makes Plunkett’s just-widowed Kate the play’s home chord. Throughout the long Panorama series, he has often used Plunkett’s gift for raw vulnerability this way. All 12 Rhinebeck in-person plays start with the same stage-setting gesture, and they also often conclude with the same image: a pale, trembling Plunkett sitting alone with her thoughts. Even when she isn’t speaking, Plunkett tends to thrum like a tuning fork, setting up a sympathetic resonance with anyone who has ever been in grief. There was a time, wild to think of it now, when that category did not include us all.
What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad is at the Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College through October 8.