When we meet Larry Sultan, played by Danny Burstein with a clipped urbane drawl, he is eight years into a photography project he doesn’t quite have his head around yet. It’s the late 1980s, and Sultan is a photography professor who lives with his wife and kids in the Bay Area, but he keeps traveling down to the San Fernando Valley to spend time with his parents, played by Nathan Lane and Zoё Wanamaker. They moved to Los Angeles and climbed the ladder of success in the middle of the century and are presently semi-retired. Now they sit in the golden glow of Southern California and bicker. In Sharr White’s play Pictures From Home, we sit with Larry and his parents, too, and we wait for something to happen.
Sultan’s project will eventually become the acclaimed 1992 photo memoir of the same name, although White’s play, based around and basically in thrall to the book, situates itself at a moment where Sultan has hit only glancingly at his conceptual goal. The aim, as Larry says up front like a professor stating the thesis of his lecture, is to tell the truth about his parents, beyond the signifiers of Greatest Generation stability and prosperity that they like to project. He’d found an old collection of home videos in storage one day, he explains, and he became fascinated by the way those videos regurgitated common myths of a booming, post–World War II America: a heroic move westward, his father’s rise up the ranks of the Schick razor corporation, the growing family frolicking in a green backyard. Yet his parents have told him a different, grimmer story about his father experiencing antisemitism at work, sobbing while scrounging for work in Los Angeles, trying to get ahead by pounding Dale Carnegie lessons into his brain. Larry’s interested in the discrepancy between the fictions and reality. His parents, especially his father, Irving, are not. While Larry describes a photograph he likes — of his father, asleep and vulnerable on a couch, for instance — Irving interrupts and declares it awful.
As Larry discusses his photos, they’re projected on Michael Yeargan’s set, which otherwise replicates a kind of lime-green mid-century California (with a few trendy postwar Polynesian touches, like a couch covered in a palm-frond print). There’s the picture of his father sleeping; another shows his mother, a successful Realtor, heading off to a showing, seemingly anxious about her own success; we see both parents fighting at the dinner table. Yet White’s script can’t quite live up to the pictures’ immediacy. He provides us with a series of vignettes, often about Larry trying to coax his parents into letting down their guard enough for him to make the photo he wants, but the drama tends to reveal less than the pictures do, and it takes longer. There’s an extended scene where Larry tries to get Irving to replicate one of his sales pitches, and Irving keeps resisting, striking a power pose and falling back on buzzwords. The scene conveys a certain fragile masculine peacocking, and Lane and Burstein play off each other well. But then you see the actual photo of the actual Irving, worn and frustrated, indicating some corporate-speak without much enthusiasm, and it’s all there. Pictures From Home, the play, ends up being a very good argument for Pictures From Home, the memoir, but not much of one for itself.
In the show’s favor, however, there is Nathan Lane, who storms onstage, wielding a golf club, wearing a gray wig and that wry smile that tells you he’s going to get the most out of every harrumph. Lane’s got a classic patter-y delivery that befits his character, and he can level up from prodding his son with BB-pellet-like asides to a bellowing cannonade when it’s time to land a punch line (“I KNOW what a fucking metaphor IS,” he shouts in exasperation). He’s got an able partner in Burstein, who seems to know to cede a bit of the stage to Lane but maintains a steady exasperation of his own. Wanamaker, as the precisely coiffed Jean, toils to keep the entente between father and son, meanwhile cloaking her financial success to avoid emasculating her husband. The play acknowledges that dynamic but doesn’t find a way to get past it, so her character never comes into sharp focus.
In fact, White’s script spends a lot of time acknowledging the patterns of behavior of the Sultan family while keeping its distance from them. He puts a lot of potential material on the table and then leaves it there. Larry mentions the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s America, but we don’t hear much about his parents’ politics, if indeed they have any. There are a few asides about the way that Larry is replicating his father’s behavior by spending time away from his own children, lines hinting at a possible conflict that never comes to a head. Larry’s visits occur across an indeterminate plotline, and the most pivotal action is the looming threat of his parents’ move to Palm Desert (not Palm Springs, as his father keeps reminding everyone). Bartlett Sher, who also directs those massive Lincoln Center Theater musical revivals (Camelot is coming this spring), summons one bravura set change here. He opens up the interior set to reveal an orangey backyard view of the mountains at sunset for a scene where Larry and Irving have a proxy fight about how to grill hamburgers. The effect is somewhere between stately and stasis. The play’s nearly timeless memory-based structure does not help the forward momentum. The characters speak across decades but seem to repeat discoveries from scene to scene across Pictures From Home’s intermission-less hour and 45 minutes. That captures the way that time will blur together when you’re spending time with family, but it blurs the drama too.
The most tantalizing thread of all is the notion that there’s something self-infantilizing in Larry’s whole process. He keeps going to see his parents, ostensibly to capture them as they really are but also reverting to a childish petulance, recapitulating the same arguments they’ve all been having for years — and getting some pleasure out of doing so. But instead of adding tension, this underexamined undercurrent saps some of the ruthlessness in his photos, substituting a layer of nostalgia that does the play no good. A sense of boomer awe toward Greatest Generation parents creeps in — which then, given the Broadway audience, doubles outward into the room. Filial reverence dominates, and that’s not what the pictures themselves are getting at. Perhaps that proves the whole project’s larger point: It is awfully hard to color-correct a rose-tinted lens.
Pictures From Home is at Studio 54.