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Regular Singing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Regular Singing cast
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Regret, portentousness, and unease have all had their turn, so it only makes sense that with Regular Singing true melancholy comes to Rhinebeck. But Richard Nelson's fourth and final installment in his three-year saga for The Public Theater about the Apple family does not deliver the vague sensations you may have come to expect. Instead, it's drenched to dripping in sadness past, present, and future—something that's all too appropriate for a play that is set on, and in fact opened on, the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. This is, however, something of a mixed blessing for those who have followed the Apples since their debut in That Hopey Changey Thing.

Nelson's series has been a unique theatrical experiment that's followed the same group of characters played by (mostly) the same incomparable actors as they've analyzed the 2010 midterm elections, the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and the presidential election that returned Barack Obama back to the White House. Nelson, who's directed as well as written all the shows, has crafted a vibrant, genuine family with a long- and deep-running history that he's now able to escort to a graceful close. But he does so with the most overt emotionalism and undisguised sentimentality yet, which does not sit easily on these people.

Not that the Apples are that difficult to understand. What's long made them compelling is both how average they are and how remarkable Nelson has revealed them to be once he's peeled away their externalities. Even so, they have not traditionally let their insides show at the slightest provocation; the easiest way to get at their darkest secrets has always been to wait for them to talk about something, anything else. So to see them so effortlessly reduced to tears, or at least struck dumb by the weight of their burdens, does not automatically ring true, even if confronting mortality is no longer optional.

Kennedy's death and the hoopla surrounding its new historical milestone are only the sparks. The fuel is provided by Adam Platt, Marian Apple's unseen ex-husband, who's in the final stages of dying upstairs at Marian's sister Barbara's house. Numerous relatives have gathered there recently to pay their final respects to the living Adam, and to learn the memorial service he's spent his last conscious days planning—he's leaving nothing, from the music to what his sister is supposed to say while scattering his ashes (nothing), to chance.

The Apples, who also include Albany lawyer Richard and third sister Jane, plus Jane's actor-boyfriend Tim, take this philosophy to heart. After all, it correlates almost perfectly with the attitude they need for dealing with their Uncle Benjamin, whose deteriorating mental state has been the most tender through line between all four plays (his memory is still shot, and he visits from the assisted-care facility once a week or so), so they all expect to need to face the matter again sooner rather than later.

This gives Nelson a good excuse to probe what existence means, and touch on the matter of the personal legacies we leave behind. But if in its first 75 minutes or so Regular Singing generally comports itself, if lacking the layers of intricate detail that have made the Apples so unbearably real, Nelson lays it on overly thick toward the end, giving into the impulses he's until now been able to outline in neon what he's previously only suggested.

So the sextet muses on the nature of death, how the once-sleepy hamlet of Rhinebeck has grown into unrecognizability, reminisces about where each of them was on That Day in 1963, and so on. It's shockingly conventional, and not at all powerful: These don't sound like the long-accepted nuances of their lives that would never, ever be aired outside of Barbara's walls, but backward-glancing displays of loss indistinguishable from any others that have flooded news shows and websites over the last couple of weeks. They're trying to participate in Camelot, rather than translate it into their own language, and in this atmosphere that approach feels false.

Thankfully, it's all that does. Nelson's direction remains beautifully paced, tightly focused, and filigree-free, thriving on the knee-to-knee discussions that thrust you right into Barbara's living room (designed, as were the costumes, with elegant simplicity by Susan Hilferty). And the acting more than sustains this impeccable standard.

Though I admit to being disappointed that J. Smith-Cameron and Shuler Hensley have not come along on this final trip as Jane and Tim (Smith-Cameron's in the Irish Rep's Juno and the Paycock, Hensley in No Man's Land and Waiting for Godot on Broadway), Sally Murphy and Stephen Kunken are superb substitutes, if hardly carbon copies of the performers they're replacing. Murphy is more of an eternal ingénue, softer and more optimistic, but Jane is still a dyed-in-the-wool realist; and Kunken's rational, intellectual spin on Tim is a comforting take on a man who's finally allowed to come into his element.

But Maryann Plunkett (Barbara), Jay O. Sanders (Richard), Laila Robins (Jane), and Jon DeVries (Benjamin) conclude their from-the-beginning portrayals flawlessly, and fill out the final recesses in the outlooks and relationships that have so defined these people. Sanders and Robin, tasked most heavily with demonstrating how to continue to live after mourning the dead, have the most complex assignments this time around, and make the strongest impressions. But Plunkett's quiet strength and DeVries's sparkle-eyed innocence are essential: one who goes on at any cost, and one on a particularly unstoppable march to finality.

The lesson of Regular Singing, of course, is that none of us can avoid Kennedy's and Adam's fates—presidents, schoolteachers, and actors alike will eventually succumb. But Nelson has never needed to flat-out tell us to make the most of the love and discussions we can have while we're here. So when, in the meta finale, Plunkett—not Barbara—turns to us and intones, "It's those days together that remind us why we live. Or maybe it is... how. How we live," it's as if for the first time we're hearing too much: an explicit conclusion to tetralogy where everything has always been implicit.

It's not the best note to go out on. But if it's the price for peering so deeply into the Apples' souls since 2010, it's one that's probably worth paying.

Regular Singing
Through December 15
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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