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‘What Do We Need to Talk About?’: Theater Review

Call it Zoom Theater, and call it terrific.

What Do We Need to Talk
Courtesy of the Public Theater

We’re in a different world since the Apple siblings of Rhinebeck, N.Y. last gathered around the dining table to break bread on stage at Off Broadway’s Public Theater. Over the course of a quartet of plays that began in 2010 and ended in 2013, this middle-class, literate, articulate tribe shared stories, revealed family dynamics and reflected, indirectly, the world outside their doors.

For the new work “What Do We Need to Talk About? The Apple Family: Conversations on Zoom,” which was live-streamed by the Public and YouTube, playwright-director Richard Nelson has brought the brood together again, but each is now isolated in their upstate homes during this pandemic, connected only through the internet for this joint family call.

With this sui generis work written during the last few months, Nelson creates the first original internet play that deftly responds to the form, this family and the times. It more than holds its own in terms of rich writing, clever staging and nuanced performance, and it is as immediate and engaging as many a theater piece for the stage. Call it Zoom Theater, and call it terrific.

In his previous Apple plays, national events  were indirectly part of the family discussions but in this current sequestering, the outside forces have reshaped their relative lives and thinking in real and profound ways.

“It’s like floating,” says sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) of the indefinite, nebulous situation they find themselves living in, “but you don’t know if you’re going to just crash to the ground and be dead or is something else going to happen. Are you suspended or falling?”

The oldest, Barbara is recently released from the hospital and is now recovering at her home where brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a state lawyer in the Cuomo administration, is now staying as he ponders some life changes. Jane (Sally Murphy), the youngest of the four siblings and a writer, is terrified to leave the apartment she shares with her partner Tim (Stephen Kunken), a part-time actor and manager of a now-closed restaurant, who is quarantined in the guest room — so they each Zoom separately. Then there’s sister Marian (Laila Robbins), a schoolteacher like Barbara, a researcher of family history and who is starkly living alone.

Nelson’s deeply drawn characters and the quiet, delicate naturalism of the performances — directed by Nelson — are ideal for this up-close and personal-screen format as they reveal confidences, share family news, tell bad jokes, and talk about the dailiness of their much-reduced lives in direct discourse. Quartered on screen, there are few places to hide — other than to fetch a drink, find a cell phone or clear a meal. These characters are both actors and audience at once, with little stage distraction now as they peer intently into their screens, looking for clues, cracks, gestures and tells to know what everyone is really thinking and how each is really doing. Their need for connection is palpable.

Like the other Apple plays, there is no speechifying, dramatic reveals or plot twists. The only news is when Richard — or rather Barbara first — says that he is considering retirement, an announcement that surprises the others, especially since their opinion of the governor has amusingly been recalibrated. “Is this because of Cuomo? He’s different now, Richard,” pleads Marian.

But it is in the second half of their conference call that this untethered family finds solace for their anxiousness and it comes from the arts, in the poetry, music, theater and storytelling that connects them to each other and to their humanity.

It begins with talk of “The Decameron” — the 14th century Italian literary work of “people telling each other stories while they wait out a plague,” says Barbara. “What’s so interesting, is that these people, the characters, don’t tell stories about plagues — instead they’re about sex, intrigue, some are funny, some quite magical.”

Barbara urges each to share some story and they do — of a mysterious relative, a lost artist, a careless president, a healing work of art, and of a recording session with a beloved uncle (Jon DeVries on tape)  and it is quite magical, too, giving them just enough grace to carry on for another day, for another call.

The actors all share a sublime artistry over the family’s long journey that is unmatched, each possessing an instinctive grounded quality that connects deeply, even on an internet call.

Nelson is also able to extend his vision beyond this seasoned older generation of characters. He sees it through young people’s eyes, too, as the Apples share their students’ and children’s experiences — which is often quite differently from them. Sometimes it is done angrily, and sometimes in heartbreaking ways.

“Billy’s girlfriend,” says Jane matter-of-factly, “and she’s really nice, I like her. She said to me — ‘It feels like the world is ending just as we are arriving.’ ”

In ‘What Do We Need to Talk About?’ — and indeed all his Apple plays, Nelson shows that a miniaturist can create a mural, encompassing a breathtaking expanse, without losing the attention to detail that is so essentially human.

‘What Do We Need to Talk About?’: Theater Review

YouTube Live and PublicTheater.org; free; reviewed April 29, 2020; streaming through May 3. Running time: 1 HOUR.

  • Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act written Richard Nelson.
  • Crew: Directed by Richard Nelson.
  • Cast: Jon DeVries, Stephen Kunken, Sally Murphy, Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins.
  • Music By: