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What Did You Expect?

For a review of Hungry, the first play of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family go here.

People are scared. Everyone I know is scared. — Comment about the volatile election campaign's effect, though things end with a more hopeful "things will get better.
What Did You Expect?
The Gabriels are once again gathered around the dinner table in What Did You Expect? (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
What Did You Expect?, the middle play in The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family is the first time I haven't attended an episode of Richard Nelson's Rhinebeck based family dramas on its official opening e night, which also happened to be the date on which it takes place. But then these plays have long ago stopped relying on the timeliness of being in the moment of what's happening at the Rhinebeck gatherings and on the larger national landscape.

The Gabriels' personal reasons for sharing a meal are still linked to what's going on beyond Rhinebeck, and Mr. Nelson continues to update the dialogue until the opening day. However, it doesn't really matter when during its run you see What Did You Expect? or the trilogy's election night finale, Women of a Certain Age. The tempestuous, wildly unpredictable, current presidential election campaign will be dominating the media chatter even after the voting booths close.

Actually, The Hopey Changey Thing which introduced us to the liberal, and financially comfortable Apple family, was not intended to have a life beyond its initial presentaton. But that was before the concept Mr. Nelson himself dubbed as "disposable" gathered what theater people call "legs."

The reason that first homespun political drama defied its anticipated limited life is that Nelson peopled his nothing much happens, homespun political play with very finely developed, likeable and easy to identify with characters. He didn't try to be a political pundit but, using Anton Chekhov as his role model, kept the focus on the family, inserting references to the political events affecting all Americans. Consequently, thanks to the stellar interpreters of these Nelsonized Chekhovians, audiences fell in love with the Apples and their creator was kept busy writing three other plays.

This season Nelson has returned to Rhinebeck in tandem with the current presidential election campaign. While the family whose kitchen we visit is different, the setup is the same as the one popularized by the Apples: a family situation prompts a gathering to prepare and share a meal. The larger political events are part of but don't dominate the conversation during the table setting, food chopping and stirring.

While the focus remains on the personal, world events and the tempestuous current election campaign are very much reflected in the Gabriels' lives. Luckily, the first play's cast members are back and better than ever — especially real life marrieds Mary Ann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders who, unlike some of the others, manage to speak up loud and clear even when the 3-sided seating has them talking with their backs to the audience.

Lucky is of course not an adjective to apply to the problem beset family. During the six months that have passed since the Gabriels last gathered to scatter the ashes and memorialize the family patriarch, playwright-novelist Thomas Gabriel, their finances have taken a decidedly unlucky turn. Thus, a comment about feeling that "we're all about to jump off some crazy high cliff" made by one of the characters in Hungry is even more pertinent now.

Though hardly at the bottom of the economic heap, the Gabriels, like so many middle-class Americans, are, per that installment's title, hungry for a return to more stability and assurance that things will get better before they get worse. Yet, given their lack of financial sophistication, they have sadly answered this installment's titular question by getting themselves into unexpectedly awful difficulties.

Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) the most senior family member allowed herself to be talked into a reverse mortgage. Her son George (Jay O. Sanders) has run out of options to pay for the monthly payments on her expensive senior residence. The late Thomas didn't manage to turn his writings into a royalty producing legacy. His still grieving widow Mary (Mary Ann Plunkett) would like to undo her retirement but has let her medical license lapse.

George, his wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) and his sister Joyce (Amy Warren) do all work — George as a carpenter and part-time piano teacher, Hannah as an assistant to a local caterer, and Joyce as an associate costume designer in Brooklyn. Nothing there to produce enough income to keep Patricia in her senior home or secure the over-mortgaged homes of her son and daughter-in-law. The fact that these are not jobs allowing bank savings accounts to grow has George jokingly write of their value with "Whatever happened to bank interest?"

Given the seriousness of the Gabriels' financial problems, money is now a major part of conversation though these are people who prefer to talk about art, literature, happy memories and local history (in this case that includes a story about Melville, readings from Edith Wharton and Euripides; and memories of the Tanglewood Music Festival). In fact, their get-together is prompted by the need to put their heads together to deal with their heavy duty problems.

Nobody really comes up with any sure-fire fix-its. Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress and Thomas's first wife, whose local teaching gig led to her becoming Mary's welcome paying boarder, goes through Thomas's papers and manuscripts in the unlikely hope of finding a gem with profit producing potential. George has put a valuable piano up for sale even though this would be counter-productive for his supplementary teaching jobs. (The piano business as well as the Tanglewood memories are subtly punctuated with occasional strains of piano music). As for George's effort to obtain steady construction work from a billionaire friend's new house, this has yielded nothing except a request for Hannah to cater a picnic for which they've so far not seen a penny.

Naturally, all these travails mirror that neither presidential candidate can absolutely guarantee that Americans like the Gabriels will once again count on more than their familial closeness to make things better again. There's little or no mention of Trump or Hillary. Yet, there's no mistaking which one Mr. Nelson feels would be best for this family's future well-being in one character's prayerful "Please, Hillary, be human!"

As this surreal and seemingly endless campaign has reached a point where it's hard to stay fully engaged, the same is true for this middle play which was "frozen" before the upcoming debates and could benefit from a little less talk. No doubt, whatever happens during the remaining weeks of the campaign will be incorporated into the election night opening of our last visit with the Gabriels. Here's hoping it that their wish that things will get better will be fulfilled.

Following are links to our reviews of the Apple plays: That Hopey Changey Thing. . . Sweet and Sad. . .. . .Sorry . . . Regular Singing . While a few marathon performances of the Gabriel trilogy are already planned, who knows if some day there won't be a super marathon of all seven of the Rhinebeck plays.

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What Did You Expect?
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
Sound design by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens
Stage Manager: Jared Oberholtzer
Running Time: Approximately 1 hr & 45 minutes with no intermission .
Public's LuEsther Hall 425 Lafayette Street (212) 967-7555,
From 9/10/16; opening 9/16/16; closing 10/09/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/24 matinee performance

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