'What Did You Expect?': Theater Review

What Did You Expect - Still - H - 2016
Joan Marcus
Like having a reunion with old friends.

The second installment in Richard Nelson's real-time trilogy continues tracking the lives of a family living in upstate New York during a tumultous election year.

With Election Day less than two months away, national anxiety has reached a fever pitch. That's why it's all the more comforting once again to spend a couple of hours in the company of the Gabriels, the fictional clan created by Richard Nelson for his new three-play cycle The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. Like these plays' beleaguered characters, we can only hope it's true that — as one of them points out in this second installment, What Did You Expect? — "things get better."

To say that these are kitchen-sink dramas (crafted in the same mold as Nelson's previous trilogy, The Apple Family Plays) is putting it literally. Like the first entry, Hungry, this work is set in the kitchen of the Gabriels' home in the sleepy suburban town of Rhinebeck, New York. The action takes place on the evening of Sept. 16, the same night the production officially opened at the Public Theater, and, as per usual, the playwright was updating the work until the last minute, meaning that the characters deliver timely commentary on the white-hot presidential race.

As before, we're in the company of Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), the widow of Thomas, a novelist and playwright who died the preceding year; Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), Thomas' elderly mother; Thomas' siblings George (Jay O. Sanders) and Joyce (Amy Warren); George's wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley); and Thomas' first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), who has been living in the house and become a member of the extended family.

Nothing particularly dramatic occurs in this work that takes place in real time. The characters wander in and out of the kitchen, chopping vegetables and boiling pasta in preparation for the evening meal. Never raising their voices above a quiet, conversational tone, they talk about family matters and current events. Among the disparate subjects discussed are the family's pressing finances, with Patricia faced with eviction from her assisted-living home unless a back-due $13,000 bill is paid; the historical importance of a picnic in which the authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne first met; and, of course, the upcoming election, about which one of them complains, "I just want to shower it off!" The recently inserted dialogue includes Hannah's reference to Donald Trump's appearance the previous night on The Tonight Show, where Jimmy Fallon mussed up the candidate's hair.

"You watched Jimmy Fallon?" Mary incredulously asks her sister-in-law.

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. The effect is akin to eavesdropping on a private family conversation, so intimate that when a bottle of wine is opened you feel mildly insulted not to be offered a glass. The playwright's unfussy direction eschews theatrical touches, save for loud whooshing sounds accompanying the blackouts between scenes.

This edition particularly benefits from Maxwell's increased presence. Just hearing the veteran actress turn the seemingly benign comment, "You'd understand better if you had children," into a withering put-down is a treat.

While it's been six months since the first play in the trilogy, audiences fortunately won't have to wait as long as until the next installment. The final part, Women of a Certain Age, opens on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Maryann Plunkett, Roberta Maxwell, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley, Amy Warren, Meg Gibson
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