Review by Tulis McCall
27 September 2016
The Gabriel family is gathering again at the Public Theater. What Did You Expect? Play Two Of The Gabriels: Election Year In The Life Of One Family is more or less EXACTLY what you would expect. Having met this family a few weeks ago, we are immediately at home in their home in Rhinebeck, New York. We know who the players are, and although they are not all blood relatives, they are still part of the Tribe.
The Gabriels are not upwardly mobile. They are languishing in a fog of uncertainty. They are all People of a Certain Age (I am a Woman of A Certain Age myself) and they are wondering if the end of their money will arrive before the end of their lives. On the one hand there is the matriarch Patricia (the glowing Roberta Maxwell) who is in assisted living to the tune of $4,500 a month and who is behind in her rent. On the other hand there is Paulie (not seen) who is beginning his college career at SUNY Purchase and is oblivious to the concerns of his adult guides.
In the middle are Paulie’s parents George (Jay O. Sanders) and Hannah (Lynn Hawley). They are making ends meet with piano lessons, carpentry and catering work. Mary (Maryann Plunkett) is a sister-in-law who is recently widowed by the death of Thomas Gabriel. She is a retired doctor living in the old homestead. Mary has recently invited Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) to move in. Karin teaches theatre at a nearby private school and pays a much needed rent. As well, she is helping Mary go through all of Thomas’s private papers. Thomas was a novelist and playwright so the load of writing is daunting. Joyce (Amy Warren) the third blood relative is a low-ranking costume designer who lives in New York.
The family is gathering for what seems to be a frequent event – dinner. Joyce is also putting in a rare appearance. On tap is the kind of conversation that people share when they don’t really want to talk about the Blue Elephant in the room – finances. And they do such a good job of not talking about what is going on that the conversation sinks to a mild bubbling pot of gruel.
Speaking of food, the central event here is not about the family ties, it is about producing a meal, which these very fine actors do. From start to finish the entire play revolves around making and baking a casserole and preparing food for a picnic on which Hannah and George are going the next day. With a rich weekender. This is significant because they will be retracing the steps of a famous picnic attended by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, after which the younger Melville tossed out his manuscript and completely rewrote Moby Dick. What happened on the picnic was recorded, but only in a general way. The specifics of what happened between Melville and Hawthorne remain a mystery.
And there you have it. Money is tight in The Gabriel homestead in Rhinebeck, and the reason that Melville rewrote Moby Dick after an encounter with Hawthorne is a mystery. There is also some conversation about the art of costuming. And the ongoing saga of the weekend people vs. the Townies. Oh, yes, the upright Beckstein piano is up for sale. And in the final moments the family muses on the upcoming debates and hopes that Hillary comes across as “human.”
This is casual, intimate conversation that families often share on an evening that is not remarkable in any way. Like the unremarkable evening it chronicles, this play is also unremarkable – in every way.
The actors carry on as best they can, pulling the shroud of conversation close about them and picking through it for scraps of life. The conversation, however, is so lugubrious that one gets the feeling that they are simply waiting for their cue to speak. The one exception to this is Roberta Maxwell who arrives on the scene crackling with life. She will look people in the eye and say, “I don’t know.” She jumps up to leave the room when the phone rings. She helps herself to sherry. Most of all she listens. She listens and listens and listens. You cannot take your eyes off of her because her listening, unlike much of the rest of the action, is shimmering. You can almost see her eyes twinkle.
The next play in this trilogy is about Women Of A Certain Age, and I can only hope that Maxwell is given a featured position in the story.
Finally. I understand that the entire production evolves around a meal created in real time. That’s the hook. Got it. I do, however, take issue with the blocking. No one prepares a meal sitting down unless it is to peel something. This cast spends nearly all their time sitting at the table – cutting onion, making guacamole, putting together potato salad. I spent most of the evening wondering why.
I cook. I cook a lot. I have been to people’s homes and helped them cook. No one sits when preparing a meal. No one. Not Nobody. Not Nohow. Never. This conceit puts a damper on this production. If you cannot believe what you are seeing, there is slim chance you will believe what you hear.
"Mr. Nelson’s play isn’t nearly as stark or melodramatic as this one appears to be. Yet it’s hard not to identify with the unnamed observers, watching people much like ourselves, provisionally cocooned in a warm, well-lighted nest within a thick and far-reaching darkness."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The play serves up a slice of humanity. It takes an intimate view of one family to look more universally at all people."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"While it's warmly familiar and gorgeously performed by a company including Jay O. Sanders and Roberta Maxwell, What Did You Expect? sometimes misses its step. Writing at top speed (three plays in a year!), Nelson takes insufficient care over his textures: overfull with cultural trivia and self-referential winking, Expect's less strong than the first Gabriel play Hungry."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"While the play is undeniably static, such timeliness and the talented ensemble's fully lived-in performances ensure that you're utterly drawn into the family's world."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"'What Did You Expect?' bears a strong if superficial resemblance to the playwright-director’s beloved series of plays about the Apple family. Both families live in Rhinebeck, N.Y., struggle with the loss of a patriarch, and are deeply unsettled by the state of the nation. But the sensitive, literate Gabriels are an intellectual and economic notch below the Apples, which makes this quintessential American family more vulnerable — and more precious."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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