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That Hopey Changey Thing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

That Hopey Changey Thing
Jay O. Sanders, Shuler Hensley, J. Smith-Cameron, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, and Jon Devries.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Endemic to the nature of theatre is the reality that seeing different performances means seeing different shows. But rarely is that more true than with That Hopey Changey Thing, Richard Nelson’s new play as part of The Public Theater’s Public Lab program. You see, it’s set on November 2, 2010, between 7:00 and 9:00 PM. I attended the opening night performance, which took place on November 2, 2010, between 7:00 and 9:00 PM. Even more than usual, what I saw unfold will not — cannot — be what you’ll see, because the world of that time and the world after that time are fundamentally different. It won’t necessarily make Nelson’s listless play any more spirited, nor will it subdue the exquisite performances or individual moments of piercing truth on hand. It will just lack that extra “oomph” that, under the right circumstances, can make a passable evening a memorable one.

As both the title (drawn from a Sarah Palin speech at a Tea Party convention) and the setting suggest, the midterms factor into the story, if not to quite the degree you may expect. The play doesn’t take place in Washington, for one thing, but rather the tiny town of Rhinebeck, New York, where five members of the Apple family have gathered for a rare dinner and election results. And none of the six characters is a politician, though one is close. That would be Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a gifted lawyer who’s recently soured on Albany as a place to get anything done. All that differentiates him from the other Apples is that he openly admits it: sisters Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) mask their own dissatisfaction, while a third, Marian (Laila Robins), is more open about her feelings. About the only thing they agree on is that the Democratic Party isn’t the best way to go — it’s the only way.

Or do they? As dining and discussion progress, Richard’s disgust manifests itself as something darker and more dangerous — a respect for Republicans! — which is oddly contagious. Once he opens the floodgates, even the stalwart Marian must question whether President Obama has kept his most golden promises, or even whether doing so is possible. All four of them have taken so much for granted as family that they’ve neglected to realize they do the same for their country, and being forced to reevaluate how assessing one means confronting the other. Jane’s tagalong boyfriend, Tim (Shuler Hensley), comes to similar conclusions, but not Uncle Benjamin (Jon Devries): He developed amnesia following a serious illness, and can’t remember the people he voted for or why, to say nothing of the conventional wisdom that he’s not supposed to blame the president for his failures.

If this all sounds directionless and underdeveloped... well, it is. Nelson, who’s also directed with an indifferent hand, never reaches any specific dramatic conclusions about the scenario he outlines. He doesn’t strongly connect the family and political dynamics at work, the one thing that is necessary for the piece to add up to more than a series of themed vignettes. (Scenes are uncomfortably divided by blacking out Jennifer Tipton’s lights and a “whooshing” from sound designer Scott Lehrer that recalls an asthmatic blowing on a candle.) Potentially interesting plot threads, such as the siblings’ actual parentage; replacing Benjamin’s dog, whose death the week before Benjamin can’t remember; and Benjamin’s theories about acting (as typified in an Oscar Wilde reading and a landmark Chekhov production), are raised and dropped in the seconds it takes two Apples to trade the potatoes for green beans. Even the big confrontation is so sedate, you can’t help but wonder whether tryptophan from the feast is already kicking in by the time it starts.

Three things rescue the enterprise from the compost bin of forgettability. First and foremost are the performances. The good thing about a slice-of-life-and-slice-of-pie tale like this is that it allows expert actors a chance to show how much artifice they’re capable of removing. Among all six actors, there’s not a drop to be found. I was particularly enamored of Plunkett: She brings a tremendous warmth and devotion to the careworn Barbara, who as Benjamin’s caretaker and the only single sibling, has a heavy burden to bear — and you see all of it collecting behind Plunkett’s eyes. But Smith-Cameron’s gentle peacemaking, Hensley’s non-interfering indifference, and Devries’s powerful presentation of Benjamin struggling to find himself within everyone else are every bit as absorbing, and the relationships each character forms with the others are sumptuous in both their spoken and implicit complexities.

Second is that Nelson does end up showing solid respect for the conservative-Republican side of the equation. Many early moments seem to stack the deck beyond any mortal’s reach, but Sanders topples them in a blast of passive-aggressive brio just before the dinner row erupts. Nelson, it turns out, isn’t pressing his points as much as letting you see their depths so you can understand the significance of any turnarounds that may (or may not) happen later. As the progressives slowly consider moderation, you feel exactly as you should: that they’re evolving, not revolving. That smoothness makes the undercharged dinner-table battles much more palatable.

Alas, the third and final is one you can’t experience after November 2. As results were pouring in from around the nation, with significant numbers of House seats and governorships flipping to Republicans but the Senate stubbornly refusing to flip, you couldn’t help but feel the conversation you were seeing was likely unfolding in similar ways across hundreds of cities and dozens of states. These are people with strong beliefs pondering not only their direction, but the direction of America, and whether one more election, regardless of its outcome, can make a substantive difference. Eavesdropping on their pain, both personal and political, at such a raw moment in modern history, added the layer of immediacy the rest of the writing — even loaded with copious topical references — definitively lacks.

Heroic as the actors may be, they ultimately can’t overcome this — the things they talk about are barely exciting enough to sustain a Sunday morning TV show. But as That Hopey Changey Thing unfolds, its title becoming less mocking and more ironic, Nelson convinces you that the real theatre isn’t happening at The Public but rather everywhere in the country that vital statements are made and key questions are asked. Maybe Nelson shows us too much of ourselves for his play to work as either entertainment or commentary. But it inspires enough realizations to hint that lasting hope and change just may be alive and well and living in the United States.


That Hopey Changey Thing
Through November 14
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule at www.publictheater.org