Civility in political discourse among the topics gently considered during Richard Nelson's latest drama
BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Oskar Eustis, artistic director for the Public Theater, commissioned Richard Nelson to write a play about a major issue currently facing the nation.
Author of "Some Americans Abroad" and "Goodnight Children Everywhere" among many other works, Nelson decided to dramatize liberal people talking politics in their upstate New York home on Election Night 2010.
Nelson's new play, "That Hopey Changey Thing," not so coincidentally premiered on Tuesday's election night at the Public Theater and opens with a nasty remark about Andrew Cuomo.
How's that for being current?
The event itself proves to be a subdued but handsomely rendered slice of American life that partly regards the need to restore civility in our political discourse.
Four middle-aged siblings — Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and Marian (Laila Robins), both public school teachers, Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer in the State Attorney General's Office and Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) a non-fiction writer — join up for dinner at Barbara's house in Rhinebeck. Sharing the meal is their beloved Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), an infirm, retired actor who resides with Barbara. Meeting them is the very recently divorced Jane's new beau Tim (Shuler Hensley), also an actor.
These people are all white, educated, reasonably well-adjusted, successful professionals. During the intimate 90-minute course of a potluck dinner, their liberal-angled conversation periodically erupts into spats about Sarah Palin and other tea-dyed worthies that grow a mite nasty.
Old Uncle Benjamin, a darling soul with amnesia, might be construed as symbolic of the damaged, forgetful American conscious. Or perhaps he is that clean slate everyone needs to bring to the table of public discussion. Possibly he represents both, or something else. Hey. It's a democracy. You decide.
Benjamin also may be able to unlock a family mystery but that point goes glimmering in the play's easy, digressive chitchat. Reflecting this pleasant clan's mannerly ways, the political debate never really heats up into anything significant or especially dramatic. Fortunately, the acting is so good here that the play's lack of substance and fire is scarcely missed until the story gently ebbs away, leaving viewers with a vague is-that-all-there-is sense of disappointment.
Staged within the perfect arena intimacy of the Public's virtually bare Anspacher space, the play benefits from production designer Susan Hilferty's exquisite eye for insightful clothes and spare furnishings — the crocheted tablecloth alone bespeaks a bygone WASP world — which no doubt assists the marvelous company's closely knit performances under the author's direction.
"That Hopey Changey Thing" continues through Nov. 14 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.