What Richard Nelson’s Apple family have to say about America. And what they don’t.

The Daily Beast

September 11, 2020

Richard Nelson’s final Apple family play of the pandemic features the siblings facing separation and change—and a sense of wounded grievance about what they can and cannot say.

It is, allegedly, the last time we will see Richard Nelson’s Apple family during the pandemic. How are the liberal, white, arty, upstate-dwelling American upper-middle classes feeling as lockdown eases and the election approaches? The last of a trio of plays, Incidental Moments of the Day suggests the answer is, as confined and confused as the rest of us.

Here again, discussing, needling, laughing, and consoling are siblings Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Richard (Jay O. Saunders), and Jane (Sally Murphy), with Marian (Laila Robins) mostly absent out on a date, and Jane’s partner Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor turned restaurant manager, away with his college-going kids in Amherst.

They connect, as they have in the two preceding plays in the cycle, via Zoom—their faces full of the flitting emotions of the time: confusion, questioning, sadness, attempts at levity, searching for meaning and answers, a belief in art. (Nelson encourages donations to the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation in the U.S. and the Theatre Artists Fund in the U.K.)

The naturalism of the exchanges is beguiling; the family stuff, the signals between siblings, all beautifully captured. The USP of this cycle is that the plays are written in our weird political and cultural real-time. Yet what is most effective are not the meditations on contemporary culture, but what Nelson—Rhinebeck dweller and fictionalizer of many years standing—knows about his characters’ feelings towards one another, and how deeply and deftly the actors connect to those characters, and connect them to us.

There is little profundity in what the play has to say about politics, you’ve read it all before in a hundred hand-wringing editorials; the best of the Apples is personal.

It is early September for them, as it is for us. You can sense that they miss being with each other, and that these Zoom calls are vital. Jane is depressed, and thinking of becoming a crisis counselor, which seems—on the strength of her emotional bearing here—to be a phenomenally bad idea. She misses Tim, and he her, but there is unstated bad feeling between her and one of his children; and in the freighted silences and glances of Murphy and Kunken we sense a marriage not in peril but under a kind of pressure.

Tim did not know how sad Jane was. We see that on his face. They look at each other trying to connect. Missed beats go on too long. And then, suddenly, like a piece of colorful thread vibrant against a grey sky, their love is stated and all too clear.

Barbara and Richard, brother and sister, seem like an “old married couple”—and in real life the actors are indeed together, hence them sitting alongside one another. Much is spoken about Richard’s new girlfriend, an actor who is an irritating offscreen presence; Jane is as exhausted and lightly caustic about her hyper-bohemianism as we all are.

But there are no apologies for Nelson’s belief in art and letters, and in performance. This final play includes a dance sequence by a character played by Charlotte Bydwell that feels as important as anything spoken; at a time when there is no theater (at least conventionally), Nelson uses this moment to convey not just the joy of movement, but also the joy in watching movement.

The election is absent; Trump is absent (except for a dreary historical speech about the Marquis de Lafayette). The cultural politics in this final play are about what white people feel they can or can’t say; or the kinds of liberal white people the Apples know (and, we presume, like to think that they are). It is notable that the two anecdotes that anchor this theorizing are voiced by the Apples about what friends have told them; they are secondhand stories, the first about a woman complaining that just by being white feels akin to being accused of being racist.

These thought bubbles, like everything in the play, meander. In this topic area, that feels far too lazy. Their central complaint seems to be that white liberals don’t feel able to question the ideas and orthodoxies arising from Black Lives Matter, and the murders of George Floyd and others, without feeling canceled.

Really, that—beyond all the eloquent chin-scratching—is it. Then the play invokes James Baldwin, as if to prove its own stout, right-minded, well-read and reasoned credentials. But, despite the stated caution that it’s time for white people to take on board what is being said and done, the overall feeling is that the Apples (and Nelson?) feel as if the cultural world has become attenuated and stifling; that their idea of liberalism—being able to say what they want, that all debate and questioning is good—has become dangerous and flawed.

Of course, that the stories being told here are not theirs, and that they are merely reporting their friends’ experiences, means that nothing can be pinned on them; and Nelson uses that as a disappointing cover too. The Apples simply voice others’ sense of white threat, without picking a side or having a view.

But the message, and cultural complaint, is pretty clear—and rings pretty hollow. The resonant fear here is of being labeled racist for what the characters consider to be spurious, incorrect reasons, and the play cannot get beyond this sense of woundedness.

Baldwin is an eternally beautiful writer. But in what the play doesn’t ask about this cultural moment—what it means for people of color, not white people; and what it may mean about white people doing meaningful, practical self-examination—it reveals its own inherent weakness.

The other significant note left ringing in the air is a warning not to voice this grievance, in case it is interpreted in such a way as to lead to being accused of something terrible. Does Nelson feel under some kind of cultural siege? It sounds like it—and the nature of that siege is so grave he feels unable to address it directly through his central characters.

This not-getting-it at the heart of the play put a strain on this viewer’s identification and enjoyment of the rest of this final slice of Apple life. Nelson’s sense of a writer not being able to say what they want, of a narrowing of cultural expression is voiced by Barbara, who quotes from Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide, once adapted by Nelson, with its final plea: “Give us the right to whisper.”

Well, that is something the Apples always succeed in doing. Barbara’s quote is one of the last of a series of touchingly written and played moments between the characters that show Nelson at his best (observing character, rather than culture), and his actors too.

At the end, the empathy and concern they have for each other—the profound anchor of the play—is verbalized in a simple exchange. “You gonna be alright?”/”Are you?” Both questions hang, unanswered between them, and directed, echoingly, at us too. Instead, the two characters mime keenly felt hugs, and say goodnight.