Theater review

Richard Nelson’s apple family proves you can make brilliant theater on Zoom

The Daily Beast

April 30, 2020

Richard Nelson’s new Public Theater play “What Do We Need To Talk About?” was produced on Zoom, with the actors showing how it’s possible to be funny—and deep—far from the stage.

Here are the Apples again, Richard Nelson’s family of affectionate, white middle-class, middle-aged siblings. They are not now sitting around a Rhinebeck dinner table talking, baiting, and joking with each other about politics, family, and art, but talking—just as meanderingly as we are used to, but with added urgency—about right now.

The Public Theater’s contribution to “what the hell do we do about theater for the time being?” was to bring Nelson’s well-known upstate New York family, last seen on stage in 2013, back to life via a family Zoom conference happening live this very evening, as an echo of so many households and family and friendship groups split up physically because of coronavirus.

Written and directed by Nelson, What Do We Need To Talk About?—part of the so-called Rhinebeck Panorama, which also includes Nelson’s The Gabriels and The Michaels—is a brave theatrical move: Many people have to Zoom most days with colleagues; more Zooming in the name of art might have seemed one Zoom too far.

This time you are watching others Zoom as a spectator (you can watch a recording of the play here). You are a Zoom eavesdropper to quotidian and shattering moments in the lives of high school teacher Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Richard (Jay O. Saunders), Jane (Sally Murphy), second-grade teacher Marian (Laila Robins), and Jane’s partner Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor turned restaurant manager. Now dead, though not entirely absent: uncle Ben (Jon DeVries).

Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, introduced the play—sub-titled The Apple Family: April 2020: Conversations on Zoom—by noting that 2013 seemed like “a hundred years ago.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the meaningful ghost in the machine; the play sequence debuted on the day that Cuomo was elected governor of New York State. Now, the family members laughed, just look at him: how had he become the hero of the hour?

Richard, who had worked with Cuomo back then, then left and joined a corporate law firm before his own marriage broke down, is now back working with Cuomo in Albany. Barbara has just emerged from a coronavirus-related hospital stay, and has tested twice to be free now of the virus. Richard has moved in with her to look after her, although she doesn’t seem that keen on his chicken and rice pilaf. (In real life, Plunkett and Saunders are married, and hence can Zoom as one).

Tim is running a fever, and socially isolating from Jane, a writer, in the same house. She, the most overtly worried about becoming infected with coronavirus, leaves chili and wine outside the door for him. Marian, whose daughter died nine years previously, is researching the family’s history.

The actors are so natural as siblings—facial expressions that say “come off it,” gazes that speak of passionate loyalty, care, and merciless teasing—that it is fast easy to forget that this is not an actual family.

You feel all the years of family love, loss, and challenge with the Apples. Domestic life—food cooked, wine poured, rushing to the toilet—are all just as they would be in a real family chat. Jokes oil the conversation, like a genially silly joke about a horse, and a Russian joke about those who buy toilet rolls being optimists who think food will be available.

Rhinebeck, as many places upstate, has been taken over by New Yorkers who have escaped the city to their second homes. Streets are crowded, but the cemetery remains good for a quiet walk, we learn. Jane is worried about going grocery shopping. As in the plays, the only sound apart from the chatter of humans are the unearthly exhalations of breath that punctuate the end of scenes.

Barbara knows they are privileged, that they are luckier than most right now. The future of theater is discussed. Tim has been talking to actor friends, who say their lives are suddenly in suspension, with the ever-present possibility of crashing to earth. When will people feel comfortable “sitting together in a tight space for long periods of time”? And then imagine what happens when someone coughs in that space, says Richard. Silence. Just as with so many working in theater, these questions are presently unanswerable.

The first of the play’s personal volcanoes is Richard’s revelation that he is considering retirement. He wants to do something with a beginning, middle, and end. This decision flashed into his mind after a particularly fulfilling session of washing dishes.

Jane puts Richard’s decision down to a more general fear of death people are feeling right now. The siblings wonder if his desire for change has been spurred by his final alimony payment to his ex-wife. They even bring up Richard’s “rash” decision of giving up clarinet as a little boy.

Barbara, in the spirit of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron which she has been reading with her students, suggest they too tell stories in this time of plague. This speaks to the underpinning ethos of Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama itself: storytelling that revels in the telling of stories, and in their power to connect and, if not heal, then ameliorate the effects of the worse things that assail us.

Jane instructs Tim to fetch her notebook—“Wipe it down!”—and reveals she has been researching a story of a writer who may have stolen another writer’s identity. Marian talks of Ben’s brother Paul, a Texas wildcatter, who vanished. Can people vanish, Richard wonders, and the question hangs there. He talks about the “totally failed presidency” of Franklin Pierce, and the fate of a dog in his care. Tim talks about Chekhov writing The Cherry Orchard on his deathbed. “He knew how to keep going. How human is that?”

Barbara then plays a section of Ben reading from Walt Whitman’s 1865 Civil War poem, “The Wound-Dresser,”: “The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen, These and more I dress with impassive hand…”

Jane notes if Ben were still alive he would be one of the most vulnerable groups; Barbara plays some music she played in hospital: the last movement of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, “Dona nobis pacem (Give us peace).”

The group silently listens to the music, and now there is no more talking around anything, no more Zoom japery. Barbara simply says: “I thought I was going to die. I needed to say that.”

“So did we,” says Richard, “and I needed to say that.”

This is the truth the family needed to share this evening. This is the anchor of the play.

The conversation fizzles on: Jane’s son is fed up with young people being criticized for their coronavirus-related public behavior; he thinks older people have been more irresponsible. “It feels like the world is ending just as we are arriving,” his girlfriend says. The only bum note of the play is that the older folks don’t roll their eyes, at least a little bit, over that comment.

Marian informs them of a YouTube video she loves—and she now intends to ape— which follows a woman getting glammed up to put her garbage out; a new lockdown trend. She is also enjoying watching Love Is Blind (thankfully, Nelson avoids the Tiger King hype).

Slowly, everyone logs off. Barbara is tired, she wants to go to bed, and the screen eventually features just her and Jane, looking at each other with all the quiet love and knowledge the very closest of siblings can have for each other. Jane doesn’t want to go. Does Barbara? She really has just come close to vanishing, and yet here she is present. They all are present and absent.

Jane suggests they do this again the following night. Yes, Barbara says, that will make her happy, and the play ends with just her, looking at the computer screen, looking at us, her expression perhaps a mirror for those watching, a mix of so many things—questioning, relieved, happy to be alive, frustrated, unsettled, unsure, resigned, no-choice-but-to-carry-on—before she turns the monitor off.

Despite all the words spoken in the preceding hour, the truly jolting moments in this delicate play happen in silence, not just there at the end but in all the expressions of the characters as other characters talk. We see all the flashes of worry, the calling-bullshit eyebrow-raises, the minds wandering, jokes, impatience, confusion, and loving indulgence. By letting us share this tender evening with the Apples, Nelson reveals how a play on Zoom can not only work as a concept, but be just as intimate and revelatory as a play on stage.