Hungry: Theater review by Helen Shaw
For the four years playwright Richard Nelson was mounting his Apple Family Plays (Sorry, That Hopey-Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad and Regular Singing) at the Public, the pieces operated as a kind of poetry of pure being. They were earnest and personal, a quartet of hyperrealistic, bittersweet dramas that depended on the way we returned to them. Each year, we went home to the Apples until the characters become our family, too. Now Nelson has begun another such series, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, and—based on its first play, Hungry—the new crop won't fall far from Apple's tree. Again we're in Rhinebeck; again we listen as family members grapple with politics and caregiving; again the play is set on the day it opens (Mar 4), so all campaign references are totally up-to-date. Nelson's heartsick tone, political frustration and languid naturalism are the same as ever, and he can still assemble a superb acting company. Yet Hungry seems less assured than any of the Apple plays. The promised trio of dramas will all open in 2016, and the compression of the project has taken a toll. Characters speak in undifferentiated voices, with similar tics, and despite a host of touching moments, certain narrative choices sour even in the play's short running time.
Hungry takes place in a kitchen (designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West) that's held at least two generations of Gabriels. (The family name evokes a world near its Biblical end.) We first meet Mary (Maryann Plunkett), Thomas Gabriel's widow, as she bakes bread and surreptitiously wipes her eyes—this morning, the family threw Thomas's ashes in the Hudson. Now Mary bustles 'round her kitchen table with sisters-in-law Hannah (Lynn Hawley) and Joyce (Amy Warren), chatting and making ratatouille as other Gabriels orbit: Hannah's husband George (Jay O. Sanders), matriarch Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) and Thomas's first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) all join at various points. The conversation ranges from annoyance at wealthy New York weekenders to Patricia's increasing frailty to an ancient housewifery book, which counsels “hiding messes” whenever company comes.
The audience, of course, isn’t company. Rather, we're part of this warm circle of caring and concern. The play imagines that it is speaking to the like-minded: we are meant to find it a relief to laugh or sigh with fictional versions of ourselves. “Sometimes I look at Hillary and I see…a fraud,” confesses Hannah, and the audience either tuts or nods (or both). The audience laughs hardest when it feels most in-the-know, so when the Rhinebeck natives admit they've price-gouged some outsiders—“New Yorkers don't know what anything is worth anymore”—the Gothamites sitting all around them chortle delightedly. That type of coziness, though, can't sustain the show's 100 minutes.
What was lovely about the Apple cycle was Nelson’s way of phasing obliquely through events; he didn't charge through using typical dramatic means. Yet here, haste has disrupted his delicacy, leading to the show's worst technique: constant reference to the deceased Thomas, who turns out to have been a Richard Nelson-esque playwright. “I keep remembering things!” Mary cries, as she's about to tell us another way that Thomas saw the world. And wouldn't you know it, Thomas was universally wise! The others murmur understandingly, or affirm that Thomas “got it right.” The gossamer tissue of Nelson's world frays in moments like this; we see the hand of the playwright, and—all too often—that hand is patting the playwright's back.—Helen Shaw
Public Theater (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Richard Nelson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.