Brighton Festival 2017
Richard Nelson with the New York Public Theater returns to the Brighton Festival now at the Attenborough Centre. Nelson’s The Gabriel Trilogy similarly sets three evenings round an upstate New York kitchen table on crucial dates for U.S. Election Year in 2016. Susan Hifferty (who also wrought the casual muted clothing) and Jason Ardizonne-West craft a set with as many chopping boards as people, six. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting plays and breaks panels of real-time discussion. It’s layered by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens with bursts of Lucius performing ‘Wildewoman’ ‘Don’t Just Sit There’ and ‘Until we Get There’. Satie’s first Gnossienne, Faure’s Nocturne No.1 or the Goldberg Aria stray from the piano that by the end no-one plays for reasons that emerge during the second play.
After the phenomenal success of his Apple Family Plays tetralogy in 2015, Richard Nelson with the New York Public Theater returns to the Brighton Festival now at the Attenborough Centre. Nelson’s The Gabriel Trilogy similarly sets three evenings round an upstate New York kitchen table on crucial dates for U.S. Election Year in 2016. It’s not a kitchen cabinet, politics are refracted through anxious liberals in a world where the T-word’s mentioned once and Hilary and Bill Clinton’s legacies are picked at in choice anecdote around pasta being the girth of a penis ending in all kinds of oral transmission.
There’s much sly humour but mostly it’s the expropriation of native Rhinebeck folk by wealthy weekenders who swindle and steal. Parallels with Chekhov – particularly The Cherry Orchard – or Gorky’s Summerfolk don’t have to be laboured. Cross-circuiting each other in anxious gambits and hyper-naturalistic dialogue Nelson directs an intimate listening-out actors and audience strain to; it’s occasionally indistinct, but Nelson’s slurred-note humanity is exactly that.
Susan Hifferty (who also wrought the casual muted clothing) and Jason Ardizonne-West craft a set with as many chopping boards as people, six, and much logic’s chopped with parsley, apples, onions to hit olfactory nerves everywhere. You’d forgive some for crying.
It does come to that mute devastation where Jennifer Tipton’s lighting plays and breaks panels of real-time discussion small conflict, huge shifts from an outside world in between the cracks that increasingly starts to swallow the Gabriels and their thoughtful values; much here is eerily prophetic, the leaf-spiral descent to the vicious smile of a real estate agent. It’s layered by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens with bursts of Lucius performing ‘Wildewoman’ and piquantly ‘Don’t Just Sit There’ and ‘Until we Get There’. But like local history nudging famous people (FDR and his increasingly commodified museum for instance) the family’s own musicianship haunts from the next room, on a doomed piano. Satie’s first Gnossienne, Faure’s Nocturne No.1 or the Goldberg Aria stray from the piano that by the end no-one plays for reasons that emerge during the second play. There’s an epilogue even to that.
Hungry reacts obliquely to the Primaries on March 4th. One essential theme is women sharing books – it’s a Nelson trope, a cultured family exploring the roots of local history, and American history through old documents or here an 19884 volume on housewifery. Even here a stirring of independence is adduced – we’re treated to quotes before politics turns raucous and we get the Clinton jokes.
The family gathering’s for a letting-go: a scattering of dramatist eldest brother Thomas’ ashes. It’s one of Nelson’s strengths that he’s confident enough not to signpost relationships till the end. Thus Karin Gabriel’s status as Not-sure-I-should-be-here guest of Mary, widow of Thomas, isn’t cleared till the end, where it’s revealed Mary was Thomas’ third wife and Karin the actress, his first. Meg Gibson plays peripherally throughout the plays, always lingering on the edges, usefully sorting through Thomas’s dramatic writing. The presence of an unnamed second wife makes it easier for Mary – the quietly commanding Maryann Plunkett – to bridge this.
Vestigial hostilities from other family members hedge about the table. Younger brother George the craftsman and carpenter and his wife Hannah are initially unnerved by this asymmetric arrangement. George’s good nature absorbs this just as he absorbs being cut 20% by an arriviste businessman on crafting a fallen ash into furniture. The man threatens to take the oak back when the work’s nearly finished. it doesn’t occur to George that he might impound the wood. Just as he’s later beaten down over the sale of the piano, George unlike his wife finds it difficult to cross people he tries to bond with, unwilling to accord more than a mildly admonitory quotation carved into the bottom of a desk for the purchase to find at his leisure.
Lynn Hawley’s bright, focused querulous Hannah is a fine foil, voicing the audience’s unspoken pleas. Jay O Sanders like Plunkett is supremely attuned to Nelson, both having been in the Apple Family plays. Their voices too like Roberta Maxwell’s as mother Patricia cut that but more across the grain of sotto voce Nelson wants. We never have trouble distinguishing their comments. As each play ends we’re alone with Mary last o lave the kitchen for a meal prepared, but never eaten in front of us. She addresses Thomas.
What Did You Expect? moves us to September 16th with the presidential debates, and the focus on Patricia, Maxwell’s entrance having been delayed for most of Hungry. Indeed she shapes events with recent actions, having disastrously re-mortgaged the house to pay for her care in a home from which she’ll soon be ejected. Medicare and the running down of amenities, the hijacking of for instance the FDR museum all foreshadow not just expropriation but the end of the ‘hopey changey thing’ (as Nelson entitled it) of Obama’s incumbency.
The difference between the Apple Family – and Margaret Apple’s donated jumble is blink-and-you’ll-miss commented on – and the Gabriels is money. The artistic and musical Gabriels are less able to defend themselves. Patricia’s crucial mistake isn’t helped by George’s inability to cut deals, the circling of real estate men, the lack of a lawyer (Sanders’ role in The Apple Family).
It’s here that Maxwell’s Patricia expounds on her loss of a nineteen-year-old sister. In one of the trilogy’s key moments daughter Joyce (the terraced, muted Amy Warren) persuades her it wasn’t her sister’s fault she committed suicide, nor the clearly gay man she married as Joyce works out. Societal pressures hem you in from all sides, and Joyce’s own shrouded sexuality emerges as the unspoken reason her mother never fully accepts her, despite her prowess and security as an international set-designer.
It’s one of Warren’s great contributions; like Gibson she acts to a degree vestigially, voicing concerns more centrally than the latter, still edgy, sharp-tongued, sometimes unsympathetic reflecting her rejections. The way Plunkett, Gibson and almost equally sharp Lynn Hawley reach to her is a moment of quiet inclusiveness, over Eleanor Roosevelt’s all-female colony.
Again we’re treated to a long shaggy democrat or three. Gibson’s Karin not only fillets parts of Thomas and quotes him, but we’re treated to a obsessively paced discussion over a picnic between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, after which Melville tore up the nearly-complete Moby-Dick and stated over. Nelson’s assertions of cultural embedding – it’s there in the Apple tetralogy too – go further than say Sam Shepard placing an actor or writer in his Midwest plays, where they stuck out or get inverted as in True West. You only momentarily wonder if this eager skeining back and forth of American history and values is so unforced. But Nelson’s world is distinctively hyper-naturalist, it doesn’t mean it isn’t beautifully skewed.
Women of a Certain Age returns us on November 8th to the circularity of women reading about and by other women, the quotes and refractions of liberals, and Karin’s project to create a one-woman show of all Hilary Clinton’s positive beliefs, all the things she once held inviolable, and what she still manages to. It’s a thread running throughout, though the culmination on Election night with fears now crowding in, still incredulous seems ominous.
But Karin’s there too to maximize what can be sold of Thomas to pay off anything that might be saved. Gambits to stave off repossession fail, the agent doesn’t even bother to knock, bullies George ‘don’t ever hang up on me again’ though in fact since they’ve lost the house there’s nothing he can do to them.
The election features in how Patricia might yet get to vote – it ends at 7pm, an hour before the vote closes. Nelson’s and the Gabriels’ sympathies are clear; perhaps with the Apples too the town’s full of liberals, such politics being deeply marinated in a culture of remembering. Nelson’s subtext is that people who remember themselves and history might instinctively oppose those who call an end to it.
That’s not the final note: a gathering-up, the spectral long-exited piano two people hear, the dimming-down to Mary’s last invite to Thomas, bear a consummate sadness, an overhearing of America’s own asset-stripping and like the fallen ash, the sound of axes, here it seems possible, the home itself.
With such a cast it’s difficult to again single out the three strongest performances – Plunkett, Sanders, Maxwell – but Gibson, Hawley, and Warren so inhabit their parts it’s equally difficult to imagine others taking their place. The Apple and Gabriel sequences are outstanding. Even though hyper-naturalism has reached masterpieces as Annie Baker’s 2015 The Flick, or over here Alexander Zeldin’s 2016 Love, Nelson stands apart. Seven plays in seven years seems of a piece, resonating now more movingly and terribly than they did when premiering in the exact moment. Despite himself Nelson has prophesied in The Gabriel Trilogy things he didn’t want to pass. It’s an extraordinary achievement.