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Pictures From Home

  • Theater, Comedy
  • Studio 54, Midtown West
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker in Pictures From Home
Photograph: Courtesy Julieta CervantesPictures From Home

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Three great actors play show and tell in an adaptation of Larry Sultan's photo memoir.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Larry Sultan’s photo memoir Pictures From Home, shot over the course of the 1980s and published in 1992, captures his aging parents in saturated color as they putter and bicker through their golden years in a comfortable California tract house. It is also an implicit self-portrait: The images reflect his perceptions of his parents and his relationships to them, and perhaps also his desire to keep them—and, by extension, himself—from changing. “I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally,” Sultan wrote in describing the project. “To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.”

Playwright Sharr White (The Other Place) includes a version of that quote as dialogue in his adaptation of Pictures From Home, whose Broadway premiere has a top-shelf cast: Danny Burstein as Sultan and—as his parents, Irv and Jean—stage eminences Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker. These characters talk amongst themselves, but they also often speak directly to the audience, explaining themselves or commenting on the photographs that are projected onto an entire blank wall behind them, looming larger than the lives they depict. Like Sultan’s photos, many of which were staged, they appear candid without always being so; they are conscious of the images they want to convey.

Pictures From Home | Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

The gulf between image and reality is a central concern of the play. An old home movie of the family moving to the West Coast—looking happy and carefree, though Irv was actually anxious at the time—represents, for Sultan, “this extraordinary myth, unfolding in front of you. Of America. Of a Western migration. Of a great, primordial postwar fantasy lived by an entire generation just like my parents.” This question is closely tied to an examination of what it means to be successful, or appear successful, as a man in America. Irv is a self-made man who worked his way up in the cutthroat world of razor sales to become a vice president at Schick; he doesn’t understand why Larry is so proud of a photo that makes him look vulnerable.

Or does it? Larry says so, and maybe it does. But one challenge of adapting photography into family drama is that it has a lot of explaining to do. White’s Pictures From Home sometimes feels like an illustrated lecture about itself, and of images that are meant to say enough on their own. Despite the quasi-documentary aspect of the presentation, we have come quite far from the thing in itself. These snapshots from one couple’s life have gone through a lot of filters: First Sultan’s taking of the pictures, then his selection of them, then his personal spin on what they mean—would we see a note of apology in his mother’s face if he didn’t plant that idea in us?—and then White’s adaptation of it, and now the actors’ interpretation of the writing of the spin of the selection of the image of the thing.

The play tries to tell what Sultan’s photographs show, and to some extent it succeeds. Because the actors are so appealing, they make for good company: Lane can wring laughs out of any line he wants just by slapping a comic cadence on it, and his restless, carping Irv is an apt foil for Burstein’s tender, reflective Larry; Wanamaker brings wit and spine to a part that is supporting in more ways than one. Director Bartlett Sher frames the play in a spare, asymmetrical physical space—designed by Michael Yeargan and lit by Jennifer Tipton—that helps keep it from seeming too cozy.

But both the conflicts at the heart of the play and its social commentary about the 1980s are too mild to yield much actual drama. “What bothers me about the Reaganite narrative is that they conveniently pretend that this is happily ever after,” Sultan says of an old Schick headshot of his dad. “They never tell you what happens later. When this man…who’s been driven by this image of success…gets discarded.” And yes: It’s disappointing for a corporate executive to lose his job. But Lane was scheduled to star as Willy Loman in a 2021 revival of Death of a Salesman that was derailed by the pandemic. Here, instead of an unsuccessful salesman who goes mad and dies, he plays a successful one who retires to play golf in Palm Desert. No disrespect to Irv, but as a stage character: How much attention can such a person finally expect to be paid? 

Pictures From Home. Studio 54 (Broadway). By Sharr White. Directed by Bartlett Sher. With Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam
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Pictures From Home | Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


Studio 54
254 W 54th St
New York
Cross street:
between Broadway and Eighth Ave
Subway: N, Q, R to 57th St; 1 to 50th St

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