'Hungry': Theater Review

Hungry still -Publicity -H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
This ultra-naturalistic drama gives you the feeling of eavesdropping on a private family conversation.

Richard Nelson's new trilogy follows the template of his 'Apple Family Plays' in tracking the lives of a Dutchess County, N.Y., family during a tumultuous election cycle.

There's something awfully comforting about settling in to watch the first installment of playwright Richard Nelson's new trilogy about a Dutchess County, N.Y., family. Set in the kitchen of the Gabriels, who live just around the corner from the playwright's previous subjects, the Apple family, Hungry gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall in the home of people who seem reassuringly familiar even though you're just meeting them. The evening delivers the sort of intimacy rarely encountered on the stage, even if, like some real-life family gatherings, it has its longueurs.

This trilogy, entitled The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, will be presented through the rest of 2016. It follows the template of Nelson's The Apple Family Plays, seen between 2010 and 2013 at the same venue and later broadcast on PBS. It tracks the lives of a fictional family, with each play taking place in real time and set on the production's opening night. Updated to the last minute to reflect current events, the plays feature politically tinged discussions as part of the mix, with the final play in this second series scheduled to open on Nov. 8, election night.

An unseen character dominates much of Hungry's emotional climate: Thomas Gabriel. The program informs us he was a novelist and playwright who died four months ago. Congregating in the family's kitchen to prepare an evening meal are his widow Mary (Maryann Plunkett), his third wife; his brother George (Jay O. Sanders); George's wife Hannah (Lynn Lawley); and his infirm, elderly mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell). Also present is Karin (Meg Gibson), Thomas' first wife, who has been invited by Mary to join them, to the annoyance of some of the others.

Narratively speaking, little happens in these plays, which make Chekhov's work seem like fast-paced thrillers by comparison. The most dramatic events that occur onstage here are the peeling of apples for apple crisp and the preparation of the ratatouille, the smell of which comes to permeate the auditorium. The main dish is accompanied by pasta, and suffice it to say that you'll never prepare it the same way after hearing one character's tip. 

The evening, then, is not about action, but rather the casual interplay — sometimes humorous, sometimes mildly tense — among the extended family members. As with the first trilogy, this installment seems mainly designed as an introduction to the characters. (The elderly Patricia only makes a brief appearance, presumably to have a larger role in the next two plays.) All of them seem vitally real, thanks to both the precision of the writing and the superb performances by the ensemble (two of them, Sanders and Plunkett, are Apple Family veterans).

A sign posted near the theater entrance advises us that the play we're about to see will be "conversational," warning that the actors' voices will be low and urging those who think they need it to procure hearing-assistance devices. Indeed, the proceedings are conducted in a normal tone of voice, with little effort made at projecting. The results are sometimes hard to hear even in the relatively small venue, and you may find yourself leaning forward to catch every word as if eavesdropping, which adds a further naturalness to the proceedings.

Not that Nelson, who also directed, refrains entirely from theatricality. Scenes are punctuated by blackouts accompanied by loud, ethereal whooshing sounds, which have a dramatic effect but feel out of place.

As for the political content, it mainly consists of a conversation in which the characters comment about recent events in a personal, slightly aggrieved way that feels very authentic, if not particularly illuminating. Nelson sweetens the pot with each play by adding a few lines of dialogue just hours before the curtain to take it right up to the minute, at least for the opening-night audience. In this case they referred to the previous night's appalling GOP presidential debate.

"After last night, I'd vote for Megyn Kelly," one character says disgustedly. "I went to bed," another comments.

"God, it's going to be a long eight months," another sighs. It certainly will, but the stress will be somewhat alleviated by the pleasure of keeping up with the Gabriels over the next two plays.  

Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren
Playwright-director: Richard Nelson
Set designers: Susan Hilferty, Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designers: Scott Lehrer, Will Pickens
Presented by the Public Theater