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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Maryann Plunkett
Photo by Joan Marcus

"What the hell happened to history?"

This question, voiced near the beginning of Richard Nelson's new play at The Public Theater, Hungry, could not be more apt for 2016. Given that we're facing an array of six major candidates from both parties who are all trading on some variation of the past as the reason you should vote for them, all while denying that the missteps (at best) and atrocities (at worst) of the same earlier eras and ideas be ignored, it can be all too easy to think that it's the American people who are lost. Or, if you will, being abandoned.

Nelson has captured this alienating zeitgeist with such accuracy in this play that it almost seems indecorous to discuss the idea of whether it is a fulfilling drama on its own terms. Spoiler: It isn't—but whether that matters much, at least at this juncture, is less clear. As he did with the four installments in his "Apple Family Plays" series, which were set on key dates of political or historical significance in those years, Nelson is viewing the specific details he outlines here as a part of a larger saga called "The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family." Which should give you an idea of what you're in for.

Except it doesn't. Hungry, which is set on March 4 of this year (also when I, and other reviewers, were invited to attend) is, like the "Apple" plays, less about the larger social ideas in which we're all swimming (or drowning?) and more about how these characters see themselves within them. And though this effort shares a great deal in common with the earlier series—it's a 100-minute intermissionless evening set in Rhinebeck, New York; an aging parent's slow disintegration is central; and there's a superb cast led by Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders—I'd argue it's even more effective than its predecessors at connecting the micro to the macro, the individual to the collective, and emotions to the cold realities of contemporary life in the United States.

It does so by way of a death: that of Thomas Gabriel, a novelist and playwright, who died from causes incident to Parkinson's disease four months earlier. And on this day of his memorial service, those closest to him are gathering together to celebrate and make sense of who he was and what he meant. Foremost among these are his widow, Mary (Plunkett), a retired doctor, and Karin (Meg Gibson), Thomas's first wife, who is now an actress and teacher. But also on hand are Thomas's brother George (Sanders), sister Joyce (Amy Warren), and mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), and George's wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), who plan to commune the way all great families do (or should): around the dinner table.

Amy Warren, Meg Gibson, Jay O. Sanders, and Lynn Hawley
Photo by Joan Marcus

But while they collaborate on assembling the meal (ratatouille, pasta, salad, bread, and Thomas's cherished apple crisp for dessert), and remembering the man who so mattered to them, strains of discontent begin making themselves heard. A story of how George's furniture business is being extorted by a city dweller who doesn't understand small-town business. A newspaper article that reduces Rhinebeck (and, by extension, its inhabitants) to a punch line. And, of course, worries about whether those running for office represent them at all or are merely trying to carpetbag their way into the history books, much as George accuses Bill Clinton of doing at the Roosevelt Library (inspiring the quietly enraged quote from earlier).

As both playwright and director, Nelson weaves these concerns cagily, almost invisibly, into the fabric of the play—practically as background noise to the melody of how anyone, particularly the devastated Mary, will be able to live without Thomas. But they resonate with unexpected force as the Gabriels survey the battles they're being forced to fight against everyone who thinks they know better than the "country hicks," and thus reflect the mood of a dangerously disaffected nation. Donald Trump is name-checked only once; so is Bernie Sanders. Yet the echoes of their messages to those who fit into exactly that group—who are hungry for real change from the stuffy elites—resound loudly enough that both of them almost become major characters in their own right.

If, indeed, a thorough exploration of that mindset and how it may or may not influence the lives and choices of these ordinary, not-easily-persuaded people (perhaps unsurprisingly, all appear to be confirmed Hillary Clinton backers) is what Nelson has in mind for "The Gabriels," it could be a gripping journey indeed. (There are two more chapters to come this year, the last, naturally, opening and set on election night, November 8.) And what's here suggests that that isn't only possible, but perhaps likely.

The stumbling block (for now, anyway) is that almost all of the characters are pretty drab. This is not the fault of the performers who, in the tiny LuEsther Hall (cozily configured in three-quarters-thurst style and decorated, by scenic designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, to mimic the "Apple" home of the Anspacher), craft magnetic, almost impossibly real personalities for them and yank you into their minds and hearts. But because the Gabriels are defined primarily by their links to Thomas rather than anyone living, so it's as though you're observing a half-dozen three-dimensional figures trapped in glass boxes, interacting with each other at the surface level but not below. The Apples, in both their world and ours, needed to be together; so far, the Gabriels do not.

Only Mary, as the fulcrum, is the exception, and then because Plunkett demands it. She portrays a devotion utterly uncluttered and unyielding, and ill-equipped for surviving without the object of its affection, and this casts a corrosive pall over all her words and actions. Mary kneading bread dough is an activity fraught with loss; she is barely able to hold herself together as she relives the halting, lurching steps Thomas took between table and desk; and when the pain becomes too great, you fear that she'll implode from the weight press inward on her soul. Plunkett mines every bit of the agony from these moments and a thousand others, and, even more important, holds together the play by showing how all the other relationships are her lifeline, and all that's keeping her from joining Thomas—and America—in the abyss.

It's a masterful performance—one of the best I've seen Plunkett give, which is really saying something, and more than enough on its own to justify Hungry as a springboard for a year of remarkable theatre from Nelson and his cast. If, at this point, not all the pieces come together, they do offer the hint of a picture we, and those who would govern us, desperately need to see: of a land and a people left behind, grasping for answers and absolution in a country that is too often committed to—even dependent on— their unquestioning, unheard assent.

Through March 27
Public Theater LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street
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