The Michaels

Theater, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
The Michaels
Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Diane Snyder

For nearly a decade, Richard Nelson has been chronicling, with subtle insight, the impact of American politics on the residents of Rhinebeck, New York, the liberal-leaning upstate community where he lives. The last time he transported us there for an intimate family dinner—a regular feature of the plays—was in 2016’s Women of a Certain Age, set on Election Day. Yet Nelson’s previous Rhinebeck plays, presented in two cycles about the fictional Apple and Gabriel clans, have been only lightly sprinkled with overt political talk. That dusting is even milder in The Michaels, a tenderly moving stand-alone drama about Rose Michael (Brenda Wehle), a modern dance choreographer facing mortality, and the effect of this brilliant, challenging woman on the people around her.

These include Rose’s new partner, Kate (Maryann Plunkett), who is taking on caregiver duties; Rose’s ex-husband, David (Jay O. Sanders); and her former dancers Irenie (Haviland Morris) and Sally (Rita Wolf), who is now married to David. For the first time in this group of plays, Nelson includes a pair of millennials: Rose’s daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), and niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto), both dancers who re-create the elder woman’s work within the confines of her kitchen. (The choreography is based on the work of Dan Wagoner.)

Since these characters have a looser bond than his previous family units, it takes time for them, and the play, to congeal. Slowly, themes emerge about our responsibilities to each other and ourselves, and about the fragile, fleeting nature of life and art. Kate and Lucy are torn between loyalty to Rose and separate opportunities to go to France. Characters talk about running away and looking inward; few have an appetite when dinner is finally ready.

Part of the power of these plays lies in the naturalism and lack of sentimentality with which Nelson, who also directs, allows them to unfold. And he’s fortunate to be reunited here with Sanders and Plunkett, who bring affecting honesty to seemingly ordinary interactions; veterans of all his previous Rhinebeck plays, they are starting to feel like members of our own family. It’s not a spoiler to say that little gets resolved by the end of The Michaels. For Nelson it’s always been about the ongoing journey—for his audience as well as his characters. 

Public Theater (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Richard Nelson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.

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By: Diane Snyder

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