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Sweet and Sad

. . .The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young
Some suffer so much. . .
I recall the experience —sweet and sad
— from Walt Whitman's "The Wound Dresser" during a preview reading of the poem Uncle Benjamin Apple will be delivering later at a local memorial concert.

Sweet and Sad
Laila Robins, J. Smith-Cameron, and Maryann Plunkett in Sweet and Sad
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Richard Nelson's The Hopey Changey Thing was set on election night 2010. Because the family dinner party at Marian Apple's Rhinebeck, NY home was so specifically tied to the events discussed at that table (the opening at the Public's Anspacher Theater ended just as the polls in New York closed), Nelson's introduction to the play indicated that he was aware that this synchronization between the play's setting and opening would date it so quickly that it could be categorized as a "disposable play."

With the arrival of Sweet and Sad and the return to Rhinebeck on September 11, 2011 -- ten years after the tragedy ten years earlier — it's clear that Nelson has had second thoughts about writing The Hopey Changey Play off as theatrical ephemera. So has Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater who commissioned Nelson to write a public issue play.

Nelson and Eustis now see The Hopey Changey Thing as the beginning of a whole cycle of plays to reflect on important social and political events through the viewpoint of individual, easy to identify with human beings. You need only look at the picture accompanying this review to see that Nelson has used a theater great as his role model. I'm of course referring to Chekhov. As his own play's very able director, Nelson included the pictured scene of the Apple sisters that's de rigueur for any production of Three Sisters. Sister Barbara, Marian and Jane Apple's brother Richard and Uncle Benjamin, and even Jane's actor boyfriend Tim, are also Nelsonized Chekhovian types.

While I wouldn't call Sweet and Sad, or for that matter any Nelson play on a par with Chekhov, Nelson is a very good writer with a special gift for quiet plays with finely observed and developed characters. Unlike many writers who'd be well advised to leave the direction of their plays to others he also knows how to move his characters around the stage naturally. In this play he's also created nice small moments to establish the affection and occasional bristly undercurrents between the siblings. The bigger emotional tensions play out without any big dramatic fireworks.

Sweet and Sad, like its predecessor, makes the most of Nelson's strengths. It also benefits from having the same top drawer sextet of actors on board again. To their great credit they really converse and share a meal like real people, hopping from topic to topic without ever sounding like characters in a play.

You don't need to have seen The Hopey Changey Thing to understand the backgrounds and relationships of the family members and the one outsider (Jane's boyfriend). Nelson's script efficiently fills us in on who's who: Barbara and Marian, both teachers, live in Rhinebeck with their uncle Benjamin, a former actor, whose heart attack left him with severe memory loss but still capable of being interesting and even amusing. The Manhattan contingent that came to dinner in Rhinebeck on the last election eve, have now come for brunch before a local reading (by Uncle Benjamin) and a concert to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary. Brother Richard has settled into corporate lawyering but salves his liberal conscience with pro bono work. Jane, a divorcee with a grown son, lives with Tim in Manhattan Plaza, the theater district high rise where under-employed actors like Tim pay rent according to their income.

The brunch moves along with jokes and story telling, political comments and occasional good-natured personal digs. It all tends to be a bit static but Nelson does pack plenty of questions prompted by the 9/11 anniversary. Most troubling and rarely spoken about is the question raised by one of Barbara's students about why the government compensated families of those who died on 9/11 (a precedent established by a special act of Congress for this situation only but not after the Oklahoma City killings). The personal tragedy of Marian — the fairly recent suicide of her teen aged daughter — adds a special emotional tension to the determinedly cheerful but nevertheless sober get-together. The close to home losses (Marian's daughter, Uncle Benjamin's lost memory) also add more general philosophical questions about how to cope with personal tragedy.

Having grief so close to home adds emotional heft to Sweet and Sad and the Apples, as portrayed by these actors are likeable people. However, there's once again too much business about setting the table, eating and clearing up and eavesdropping on other people's table talk is hardly a major theatrical experience.

The idea of continuing to explore the national zeitgeist through this family is a worthy one, especially at the affordable $15 ticket price for such LAB. But though Nelson and Eustis may not be wrong that these plays will have relevance even when viewed in hindsight, I think the idea of a whole evening of these plays, mentioned in Nelson's introduction to his play, would be too big a bite of these Apples for anyone to sit through. And since Part 3 is as close as the next election, maybe Mr. Nelson could think about moving the brunch, lunch or dinner outdoors to a barbecue -- or perhaps to Manhattan.
Sweet and Sad
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Cast: Jon DeVries (Benjamin Apple), Shuler Hensley (Tim Andrews), Maryann Plunkett (Barbara Apple), Laila Robins (Marian Apple Platt), Jay O. Sanders (Richard Apple) and J. Smith-Cameron (Jane Apple Halls)
Scenic and costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton
Sound design by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens
Stage Manager: Pamela Salling
Running Time: Approx 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission
Public Theater 420 Lafayette Street
From 9/06/11; opening 9/11/11; closing 9/25.11.
Tickets $15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/11 opening
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