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Finding the Drama in Cooking and Conversation

By: Gerard Raymond
Date: Oct 30, 2019

Richard Nelson continues his poignant exploration of a changing America with his latest Rhinebeck Panorama play


Don't come to The Michaels hungry -- at least not for food. As with the previous naturalistic dramas in writer-director Richard Nelson's Rhinebeck Panorama (The Apple Family Plays tetralogy, The Gabriels trilogy), his latest play at The Public Theater takes place in a kitchen as a family prepares and eats a meal, in this case a mouthwatering quiche. If you're hungry for thought-provoking discussions, however, The Michaels has plenty of that on the menu.

Since the first of his four Apple Family Plays premiered in 2010, the Tony Award-winning playwright has invited audiences to eavesdrop on the complicated lives of fictional middle-class clans residing in Rhinebeck, NY -- the Hudson Valley town Nelson calls home. The Michaels centers around Rose Michael (Brenda Wehle), a semi-retired choreographer who has terminal cancer. Unfolding in real time, the play shares the same aesthetic and structure as its predecessors: With no fanfare, actors appear on stage, move everything into place and start cooking and conversing about a wide range of topics: art, economics, aging, emotions, politics. Yet in this installment Nelson adds a new ingredient: modern dance, as Rose's daughter and niece perform three dynamic pieces during the evening.

Rose and many of the older characters in The Michaels come out of the dance scene of the 1970s and 1980s, an era when choreography inspired by everyday activities was in vogue. "That is something that very much interests me," says Nelson. "These plays are based in the human actions of cooking, sitting and talking. I believe we live our lives in smallish gestures like these that are entwined with our fears, loves, hopes. That's what these plays are built from."


Nelson says he embarked on the Rhinebeck Panorama because he felt his experience of sitting in his living room with friends and engaging in wide-ranging, open-ended dialogues wasn't represented on stage. "We would talk and listen and we would question, as opposed to trying to win arguments or defeat someone else," he says. "I wanted to put the complexity of trying to figure things out -- not to come to conclusions, but just in terms of expressing one's confusions -- on stage. I found that a very rich vein."

Of course a lot has changed since his first Apple play, which is why The Michaels is subtitled "Conversations During Difficult Times." In a country more divided than ever, discourse has been eclipsed by debates, not just in life but in the theatre, too. That makes Nelson's Rhinebeck plays more urgent than ever. "We are into much more divisive territory than nine years ago," he says. "The lack of showing conversation has only grown considerably."

Nelson relies on a stable of longtime collaborators to conjure the verisimilitude audiences see on stage. The cast of The Michaels is anchored by married actors Jay O. Sanders (as Rose's ex-husband) and Maryann Plunkett (as Rose's new partner), veterans of all the Rhinebeck plays. "In terms of acting, I'm literally asking actors to forget a lot of their training," Nelson says. "We are trying to be human, rather than showing the audience that we are doing something. Theatregoers are watching and hearing people in front of them really talking and listening to each other. It is really a moral principle as opposed to a style. So there is this profound element of trust that my actors develop and evolve into that is very unique, I think."

The Michaels is the eighth installment in the Rhinebeck Panorama. Nelson is planning one more, although that final play will "journey out of Rhinebeck and be set in France," he reveals. "That will make nine plays spread over 10 years from 2010 to 2020. I like that it becomes a snapshot of a decade. If you put them all together -- if someone's crazy enough to do that -- I think they will make a very interesting journey about America."


Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.

Rita Wolf, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders and Haviland Morris in The Michaels. Photos by Joan Marcus.

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Gerard Raymond is a Sri Lanka-born arts journalist based in New York City who's a member of the Drama Desk and the American Theatre Critics Association.