Review by Tulis McCall
14 November 2016
It is difficult to say which was more painful, Election night or watching Women of a Certain Age (Play 3 of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family) by Richard Nelson at the Public Theater. Oh, Jeeze Louise - don’t get all ruffled. I am kidding here. Sort of. Last Tuesday night - Election Night - was excruciating. The Gabriels plays are merely frustrating.
I must say up front that there is a plus side to the production. Roberta Maxwell was given a little more to do, which is lucky for us because she is captivating. As Patricia, the matriarch of the Gabriel family she is in the odd position of being the one around whom everyone orbits, and the one for whom everyone is sacrificing, and the one on whom everyone has to keep an eye. At 82 she is recovering from a stroke, but not very well. She is incontinent, has a mind that has slipped a few notches, and lives in an assisted living facility that is costing several thousand dollars a month. I think that somewhere in the first of the trilogy the reason why she cannot stay at home is laid out but I cannot remember what that was.
The other plus side is the performance of Jay O. Sanders. Although his actual time on stage is limited, he makes the most of it. His George is seething with life that has been tempered. He is never without a thought, and you can read his face like a map.
Anyway, the occasion for the get together is because it is Election Night 2016 and it is one of the last dinners this family will have together in the family home. The house must be sold to pay for Patricia’s care and for George (Jay O. Sanders) and Hannah’s (Lynn Hawley) son’s tuition. Thomas, the elder brother, died a year ago and his third wife Mary (Maryann Plunkett) is not able to keep the house on her own as she has let her medical license expire. Actually, this is one of the many plot points that is never flushed out. How is it that the ownership of the house never transferred to Mary through Thomas. Now that is a play I would like to see. But never mind.
Mary has taken in Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) who is having tough times herself trying to make ends meet. She teaches drama at the Hotchkiss School where she will be performing as Hilary Clinton in a play after dinner – one she has created from Hillary’s various speeches.
To complete the evening, sister Joyce Gabriel (Amy Warren) has come up from Brooklyn to be part of this final family election night dinner.
The premise of this trilogy is that the Gabriel family are salt of the earth folks who have lived in Rhinebeck all their lives. They are the blue-collar folks that Trump has called the forgotten people, but they would rather eat their hats than vote for him. They are hard line Democrats who have more or less accepted their lot in life, and that lot is being The Downtrodden. Hope has been snuffed out of their lives for the most part. Yet they cling to each other with a ferocity that is simmering just under the surface. These are people who do what needs to be done and do not complain. They are, however, not above abusing the weekend people if given the opportunity. George admits to defacing the bottom of a desk he made with a quote from a poet’s gravestone – just in case the owner drops his Mont Blanc pen someday and actually gets down on the floor to retrieve it.
The hook for all of these plays is that they are set in real time. A meal is prepared and cooked as we watch. In the first play I remember thinking that the pasta was way overcooked. In the second I marveled at Sanders' skill in making guacamole while seated. No one I know preps food sitting at a table unless they are shucking corn or peeling something. Once again, all the prep work is done sitting down in this production, and once again it is not believable. I am guessing that part of the reason for this blocking has something to do with sight lines, but it still rings false.
As the meal is prepped, talk of the election emerges as well as the normal badinage that happens when people gather for a meal. One repeating technical theme, however, is that Nelson has these characters speak for one another. Mary tells of a dream Patricia had. Mary outs Hannah who is working as a maid. Hannah outs George’s writing on the desk. I don’t know people who talk like this when the other person is in the room. Seriously.
The saving grace is the two performances put in by Sanders and Maxwell. These two have a connection that is pure gold, and it becomes the center of the evening. The other three are planets in orbit giving vague representations of their characters. Each seems to be waiting for someone to stop speaking so that they can say their lines. An altogether underwhelming effect.
And I was in the minority in my dissatisfaction with this piece. The entire audience stood up at the end of the show. I presume it was because they loved it, but it could also have been out of gratitude that they witnessed a family who was part of the popular vote.
"The Gabriels are the tenderly wrought creations of the playwright Richard Nelson. Their time onstage here and in two previous dramas — along with Mr. Nelson’s earlier tetralogy, “The Apple Family Plays” (seen between 2010 and 2013), also set in Rhinebeck — may collectively represent the most profound achievement in topical theater in this country since the Depression-era triumphs of Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” and Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock.”"
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Some people find reassurance in the cast’s palpable warmth; some find Nelson’s Chekhovian languor a balm. But I’m troubled at how 'The Gabriels' assumes a sameness; it’s nearly two hours of self-perpetuating agreement."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"The 100 minutes spent observing this fine-grained family portrait is no ordinary kind of escapism. It's an interlude swollen near to bursting with sorrow and comfort, with losses absorbed and yet-to-come, with crushing disappointments but also with stubborn strains of humor and humanity."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"The playwright’s own intensely personal direction, at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, is brilliantly sustained by a tight ensemble of actors who have been with the project since the beginning."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...