Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker bring life to fading ‘Pictures From Home’
The Daily Beast
February 10, 2023
“Pictures From Home” tells the story of Larry Sultan, who documented his parents’ lives in photos—a moving story but not a great Broadway play, despite its cast’s best efforts.
Open a scrapbook. Dig into a family past. What were your parents like back in the day? The questions of Sharr White’s play Pictures from Home, (Studio 54, booking to April 30), the first big Broadway opening of the spring season, may echo with its audience, and even generate the odd powerful moment. These moments come from its trio of performances—Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker, and Danny Burstein playing Irving (aka Irv) Sultan, Jean Sultan, and their son Larry Sultan.
The three actors try to wring as many of the laughs and jolting moments from the script as possible. But they are navigating a mostly flaccid narrative which feels like a boring treasure hunt with lots of clues and teases, but ultimately no glinting treasure.
Even on a rudimentary level, the play is confusing—it knows what and who it’s talking about, and somehow expects the audience to. If, say, you do not know the story of Pictures From Home, and even if you do, what or who are the images and snatches of vintage home movie we see projected on the back of the stage? This visual aid is central to the performance.
The character called Larry, played by Burstein, says that it is the late 1980s and he is a professor of photography and these images are of his family, yet they do not look like Lane or Wanamaker. So, who are these people? You may sit there confused, wondering if they are stock images or different people. They are not. Larry Sultan was a real person, who really did photograph his parents for years on end; these are the real images that eventually became an acclaimed art show that traveled around America’s leading museums. Pictures From Home, the play, is adapted from Sultan’s memoir photobook.
The play—with the visual aids and Irv and Jean’s San Fernando Valley home as a design backdrop—seems to imagine that you know this backstory already. Maybe you will, but what if you don’t? Most repetitive and grating is the play’s use of the fourth wall being broken over and over again, with characters imparting things to the audience throughout the play, while also imparting things to each other, or sometimes about to. This is an annoying, cluttered, and confusing way to communicate.
It would be different if the secrets we were hearing were earth-shattering, or if there was a disconnect between what the audience came to know in these asides, as contrasted with what the characters said to each other on stage. But there is nothing more to it than narration and interjection, which becomes so pointless that every time Burstein’s character comes to tell us something, the urge within is to say, “Don’t tell us, just tell your parents. They’re standing right there.”
The actors are half-performing to us, and half-interacting with each other. It means we do not really buy into them as a family; and who are we meant to be anyway? The characters are not in a theater, but supposedly, mostly in the Sultans’ home. The dramatic set-up makes no sense, and keeps getting in the way of the play as a piece of theater.
Communication and its lack comes to be the center of the show—and what Burstein/Larry is really keeping from his parents by his dogged pursuit of photographing them all the time. These present-day images are set against old photographs of the his parents as younger people. His parents, exasperated, wonder what he is doing it for. Sad to say, the audience comes to feel the same way.
Burstein eloquently deconstructs what a picture is and is not—a memory or true representation of a person? How much can it tell us? By asking his parents to pose, is he adding to illusions rather than uncovering truths? Sadly, this exercise in entry-level semiotics rambles on and on. Every time Burstein asks himself, asks us, and asks his parents, what he’s doing, he puts up another picture from the past instead of answering the damn question.
A typical exchange goes thus.
Larry: “Dad I’m not trying to defy those images. What I’m saying is that many different interpretations of an image can live together side by side, all of them true.
Irv: No, Larry. They can’t.
Larry: Oh Jesus Christ.
The play then tries to reach for a more ambitious answer, and the sighs of recognition and warmth from the audience shows that one of Pictures From Home’s most attractive qualities is in its charting of a family that will strike echoes, maybe, with the stories of those watching it. The images of family life, the sepia Americana, the vintage visions of suburbia, the hint of the swinging ’60s, all reverberate with nostalgia.
In the Sultan family past takes in the story of a father who was a salesman, the story of a family who traveled west to find its footing and fortune; the story of a wife who is a real estate broker and who feels unseen and undervalued by her husband. Larry Sultan’s original pictures are engaging, and the vintage shots span the ’40s right through to the ’60s, and so we see a whole panoply of sunny, postwar life made personal. But, taken with the present-day images he takes of his parents, his questions about the meaning of photography, truth, and family never move beyond a kind of theoretical game.
Thankfully there is the chemistry of Lane and Wanamaker; with their needling of one another, kvetching, whining, and general longtime couple dysfunction, they save the show from being a ponderous, rhetorical-question filled desert. The audience around this critic responded to Nathan Lane doing his best Nathan Lane whenever he can, waking the audience from the play’s desiccated self-interrogation around narrative and images—as well as the excellent Wanamaker, who knows with one glance how to neutralize her growling husband when he’s about to explode.
But the play stops short of asking about their relationship too deeply, or the relationship between parents and son—beyond them wondering, true to parental form, when is Larry going to get a proper job, and why he’s bothering them with all this damn photography.
Why the play doesn’t let itself breathe more as a family comedy-drama is a mystery. The show becomes a kind of stuck needle of “See this picture? Great, well it reveals… Nah… Well, but how about this other picture?”—a bit like a plane circling an airport, ready to land but not quite ready to.
And then, in its closing minutes, the play’s sharpness pronounces itself. Larry has been photographing his parents because he loves them and doesn’t want to say goodbye to them. He wasn’t engaged in some deep and meaningful charting of time and personalities, or an epic and personal piece of family geography. Or if he was, he really just wanted to hold his parents close; photography helped freeze them in place and keep them alive for him. All these visits were to capture them on film, to be close to them and to keep them close to him when they were no longer here.
There is another, extremely sad twist to the tale, which some readers may know, which means—after such a jerky and strange hour and 45 minutes of dull story and sparky performances—the play ends with an impactful dissolve to black. But the set-up feels so long and labored this stark denouement is blunted by the far-too-meandering thesis that precedes it.