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A CurtainUp Review
#1 of 3, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life ofOne Family

"It sort of feels to me like we're all about to jump off some crazy high cliff. Doesn't it?"— Joyce
"Yeh. It does."— Karin
"Jump or be pushed, Joyce?"— Hannah
"It feels like a movie. We're just all watching this movie."— Joyce
"Are we in it?" — George
"Do you want to be?"— Joyce
The above back and forth during the Gabriel family's dinner preparations are prompted by their reaction (and probably ours) to the heated debates by presidential candidates, especially the uncivil ones by the Republicans that prompt Hannah to voice a feeling that "something really bad is going to happen" with only Mary adding a note of hope by quoting her recently deceased husband: "Don't give up. Don't give up. Things do happen. They do, Mary."
l-r: Lynn Hawley, Amy Warren, Maryann Plunkett, and Meg Gibson(Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
Welcome back to Rhinebeck, New York for another cycle of plays with one of this historic town's families, the Gabriels. The new visits to Rhinebeck will all play out during this 2016 Presidential election season. Hungry, the first play opened on Friday night March 4th, just after the end of an unusually volatile season of debates to determine who the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees will be. The cycle continues with. What Did You Expect? in September and concludes on election night, November 8, 2016 with Women of a Certain Age.

These personal perspectives on national events began when the Public Theater's artistic director Oscar Eustis invited Richard Nelson to write a public issue play. Nelson responded to that invitation with The Hopey Changey Thing . The setting was the home of the Apple Family in the a charming little village two hours north of New York City. The time of the gathering which included Manhattan based family members was 2010 election day.

Despite a modicum of back story, Hopey Changey was essentially a timely but plotless table-talk play that was dated and pretty much disposable the minute the actors took their bows. But as it turned out, Hopey changey wasn't so disposable after all. The splendid cast and Nelson's smartly textured dialogue and the way he made the Apples more than stick figure stand-ins for American voters had audiences embrace their Chekhovian charms. And so this election night visit morphed from a timely piece of theatrical ephemera into a four-play series set to coincide with pivotal events ( Sweet and Sad, 10 years after 9/11; Sorry, the night of President Obama's re-eletion; Regular Singing, the 50th Anniversary of John F.Kennedy's assassination).

Hungry is lucky to have two of the previous play cycle's veterans and real life marrieds, Marian Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders, as members of Gabriel family. They're better than ever. Plunkett is Mary, the third wife of novelist/playwright Thomas Gabriel whose memorial service is the reason for the family get-together. Sanders plays his brother George, a piano teacher and furniture maker. The sisterly connection à la Chekhov is now between sisters-in-law Hannah (Lynne Hawley) and Joyce (Amy Warren). Hannah who's George's wife works for a local caterer Joyce is his Brooklyn based sister who's a costume designer and still has unresolved mom issues).

Hungry indicates that Nelson has refined and perfected his inter-linking of major national events with the major and trivial events of an intelligent, liberal-minded group of American characters. The Gabriels aren't quite as upscale and politically active as the Apples were, but that makes them more an integral part of the increasingly troubled and puzzled middle class. During a discussion of the current campaign that disquiet is given voice with "It sort of feels to me like we're all about to jump off some crazy high cliff."

Contrary to the non-stop media analysis of the Democratic candidates and the Republicans' frantic response to the Trump phenomenon, very little of the hour and forty minutes spent in the Gabriel kitchen is about politics. Super Tuesday and the various candidates are simply intermingled with a lot of personal chit-chat during the slicing, dicing and sauteing for a rataouille and pasta dinner. The outsider at the family gathering is Thomas's first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), an unemployed actress and teacher. The civility in this domestic situation slyly shows up the nastiness prevailing on the political front.

Actually, the closest and funniest way headlines about what's in Donald Trump's pants are brought into the play's conversation is when Mary repeat her mother's tip for measuring the right amount of pasta. This reminds brother-in-law George about taking his mother (the mostly unseen Roberta Maxwell) to a local restaurant whose angry about the state of the world owner holds forth with an opinionated sum-up of all the country's current problems as dating back to a pizza night between President Bill Clinton and his intern next door to the oval office.

Though the characters on stage represent the over thirty voters, the millennials and seniors are not ignored. George and Hannah's never seen son represents the "feel the Bern" voters. However, in keeping with the emphasis on the personal, that conversational detour instead of turning into a familial political argument, had George painfully aware that he's not young any more. As for George's mother, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell, who does eventually appear-- and given that she's a terrific actress, will appear sooner in upcoming plays), she clearly represents the generation that somehow did better economically than their children but also adds to this generation's sense of being overwhelmed by problems no one is addressing.

A 1884 book entitled Common Sense in the Household. A Manual of Practical Housewifery from which Hannah and Joyce read intermittently adds to the shared dinner making camaraderie and opens the door to comments on how life has changed. Nelson who once again directs, is well supported by the Apple plays' design teem. He deftly steers his cast through all the physical and verbal business, making sure that they move around unobtrusively and naturally but to avoid that viewers in the LuEsther Hall's side sections don't see only their backs.

Real smells of the dinner being prepared actually waft through the theater and will leave you hungry for a post theater repast of your own — and hungry for more time with the Gabriels. Too bad we can't just see good theater instead of having to live through Hannah's all too prescient prediction: "God, it's going to be a very long eight months." My fingers are crossed that the dead Thomas's hopeful plea to Mary not to give up because "Things do happen" comes true.

Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Cast: Meg Gibson (Karin Gabriel), Lynn Hawley (Hannah Gabriel), Roberta Maxwell (Patricia Gabriel), Maryann Plunkett (Mary Gabriel), Jay O. Sanders (George Gabriel), and Amy Warren (Joyce Gabriel).
Scenic design by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton
S sound design by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens
Stage Manager: :Jared Oberholtzer
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Public's LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street (212) 967-7555,
From 2/27/16; opening 3/04/16; closing 3/27/16.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/04/16 press opening
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