Review of The Michaels at the Public Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    October 28, 2019
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    Commissioned by the Public Theater, The Michaels is a world premiere both written and directed by Richard Nelson. It is a perceptively understated ensemble piece that runs a fast two hours with no intermission.

    “It is what it is.”

    I’m coming to the Richard Nelson party late. I have not seen any of his other works in the Rhinebeck Panorama, The Apple Family Plays, and The Gabriels. All Chekhov reminiscent in that they deal with the mundane of life, the cooking, the washing, the cleaning, the eating, the hanging out and the conversation and non-resolution that happens all around those activities. Homelife at its finest.

    Mr. Nelson’s previous seven plays in the Panorama looked at American culture in a personal context and gave the audience an opportunity to watch a family look outward and react to the world that surrounds them. The Michaels seems to be the beginning of looking inward. The character Kate (played by the always sublime Maryann Plunkett) describes a garden she has, based on a Japanese design, with paths (because that’s what life is, a path) that expand and narrow forcing people to limit conversation, and then further down the path it becomes a haphazardly strewn area, next to a stream, with the thought that people will have to concentrate on their footing, and that precariousness would force the walker to look within. Fourth stage ovarian cancer forces us all to look within.

    Rose Michael (exquisitely played by Brenda Wehle) is a well-known modern dance choreographer (Mr. Nelson’s mother was a dancer) who is dealing with the finality of life, and it’s her kitchen, and it’s her cancer. Her family, in all its variations, both blood and otherwise, is assembled around the tables as the kitchen is the usual place to congregate. Past company members have come for a visit, her daughter and niece are working on a retrospective of her life and work, her ex-husband is there because he still cares, and her newish, laced with misgivings, lover is hosting the gathering. Dinner is prepared, songs are sung, stories are told, dances are rehearsed (“dance can be someone folding laundry”), and the meal is eaten—all amidst conversations about art, death, family, dance, politics, how the world sees America and of course the cancer and how it is affecting not only Rose, but each one of them.

    The finality of death, as well as the lineage left behind, are compelling in these characters. The play portrays a modesty and an enduring faith in the validity of simple human interaction in its refusal to overreach in order to be dramatic.

    In the four to five hours of time which make up the play, nothing is decided, nothing is resolved, nothing actually happens, except dinner is cooked onstage and partially eaten (they’re having French lentil soup, quiche, string beans with tomatoes, and salad, with crepes for dessert), and that’s okay. Okay because the confluence of the everyday questions about being alive and what to do next are never really answered in the totality of our lives much less in one evening at the kitchen table. Life is mostly gradual and mostly quiet, mostly grey throwing off occasional insight on our dreaded, but inevitable complications.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "They’re speaking more softly in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck these days, as if a raised voice might upset a tenuous balance. Not that any of the previous seven (and wonderful) family dramas written by Nelson during the past nine years, all set in the Hudson River town of Rhinebeck, N.Y., have ever involved much shouting. But his gentle, truly moving The Michaels — which opened at the Public Theater on Sunday, the night on which the play is set — feels pitched in an even lower key than its predecessors: The Apple Family Plays, a tetralogy, or the three works that make up The Gabriels. In those pieces, middle-class, economically anxious people, of literary and artistic bents, were apt to become heated and at least a little loud as they navigated the overlap between the state of their country and the state of their homes."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "As usual, Nelson directs his own play. His approach is minimal and naturalistic. The actors’ voices never rise above the conversational. They don’t seem to perform. Rather, they simply are, and Sanders, Plunkett, and Morris carry off this illusion magnificently."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Perhaps as a direct inverse reflection of its deafening volume in our everyday lives, politics is confined mostly to background texture in Richard Nelson's new work, unlike the previous entries in his Rhinebeck Panorama, a transfixing experiment in real-time micro-macro drama that now spans a decade and encompasses eight plays. Performed, as always, by an ideally cast ensemble working in an ultra-naturalistic vein, The Michaels is true to its melancholy subtitle: Conversations During Difficult Times."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter