The second play in a domestic cycle that Richard Nelson calls “The Gabriels: Election Year In the Life of One Family,” “What Did You Expect?” bears a strong if superficial resemblance to the playwright-director’s beloved series of plays about the Apple family. Both families live in Rhinebeck, N.Y. , struggle with the loss of a patriarch, and are deeply unsettled by the state of the nation. But the sensitive, literate Gabriels are an intellectual and economic notch below the Apples, which makes this quintessential American family more vulnerable — and more precious.
In keeping with the playwright’s ultra-naturalistic style, the stage at the Public Theater’s intimate LuEsther Theater is absolutely bare until the six members of the Gabriel family set it up as the kitchen of their home on South Street. No conventional dramatic introductions are made, leaving the audience to work out individual roles and relationships over the course of their real-time preparations for a catered picnic.
Despite being absent, patriarch Thomas very much dominates the conversation of the family, which is warm, loving, and heartbreaking in its belief that a close family can survive anything, even the upcoming presidential election that terrifies them. The temper of this middle-class-but-slipping household is brilliantly conveyed by Nelson when one of the Gabriels clasps her hands and prays: “Please, Hillary — be human!”
To put family matters in context: The recently deceased Thomas was a novelist and playwright who left his descendants with cartons of unpublished work but no tangible assets, aside from the house owned by his elderly mother, Patricia (a tour de force performance from the redoubtable Roberta Maxwell). This is precisely the demographic, Nelson suggests, with the most to lose if Donald Trump is elected dictator.
Thomas’s brother, George (Jay O. Sanders, steady as a rock), is now the de facto patriarch. But as an under-achieving piano teacher and cabinetmaker, he’s in no position to provide security for his brother’s dependents or even direction for survival as their assets shrink.
As is indicated by his wife Hannah, who is patient beyond understanding in Lynn Hawley’s lovely performance, George is sweet but sadly clueless about practical matters like home mortgages and literary copyrights. Even a simple service transaction is beyond him. In a misguided effort to please clients for whom he’s doing carpentry work, he treats them to the picnic being prepared — gratis — by his caterer wife.
So it falls to Thomas’s first wife, Karin (made painfully aware of her awkward position by actress Meg Gibson), to pick through Thomas’s disordered papers, hoping to find some unproduced gem that might keep this floundering family solvent in these hard times. The times are made even harder by disastrous moves made in good faith by individual family members.
Thomas’s still-grieving widow, Mary (the sublime Maryann Plunkett, deeply invested in a maternal role that was made for her), was a practicing physician — until she let her medical license expire. George made some money as a piano teacher — until he sold his piano. And let’s please not discuss the ownership of the house.
Only Thomas’s sister, Joyce (Amy Warren), who lives in Brooklyn and makes an okay living as an assistant costume designer, seems to have escaped the Gabriels’ self-destructive tendencies. In Warren’s crisply intelligent performance, Joyce smartly says her piece and escapes back to Brooklyn before the family curse rubs off on her.
Less than two months away from the election — which Nelson will get to in the third play of this cycle — the Gabriels fear the worst, but trust that their love will keep them safe from the blowback. No matter how much we love them, someone’s going to have to break the news that they’re wrong.