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What Did You Expect?

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 17, 2016

Amy Warren, Jay O. Sanders, Lynn Hawley,
and Maryann Plunkett
Photo by Joan Marcus

Like waves crashing against the rocks on a beach, the force assaulting the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, is oppressive but gentle, and slowly but surely eroding everything they are. Unlike those rocks, however, the six Gabriels congregating (or is it cowering?) in a tiny house on South Street feel and understand everything that's happening to them, but have no more power to stop it than they do the tide. This sense of existential helplessness, of being irredeemably lost in plain sight, is part of the human experience—and, in this second decade of the 21st century, a central part of the American experience—but is typically lost or forgotten when there are bigger (translation: smaller) fish that need frying first.

So if anyone was to craft the clearest, most succinct, and most moving expression of this idea the theatre has seen in ages, it's not exactly a surprise that it would end up being Richard Nelson, with the new play he's written and directed at The Public Theater, What Did You Expect?. After all, he's been honing this particular gift of his since at least 2010, when he began his four-year, four-play saga of the Apple family (also Rhinebeck residents), whose lives reflected and refracted the world-changing events they viewed from afar. And Nelson certainly foreshadowed what was to come back in March with Hungry, the first of his three-play, all-2016 cycle of the Gabriels, who then appeared to be Everyman representatives of the chaotic—one might say toxic—election unfolding all around them.

Even so, nothing he's written in either cycle quite has quite prepared us for the depth of dread that suffuses every second of What Did You Expect?. The Gabriels' every exchange, no matter how small or innocuous, reveals them to be no longer merely balanced on the edge, but sliding down the worse side and finding no one there to help them. These are working-class folks facing unremarkable struggles, ranging from employment challenges to the stresses of having a child in college and a mother in an assisted living facility to cleaning up the house after a death to accidentally letting professional licenses expire to getting cookies out of the oven on time. They're not "special" in any way anyone outside their sphere would notice, and their awareness of this is consuming them from the inside out.

All they see are avatars of the One Percent invading their town and upturning its economy, and looking down on them at the parties they're forced to work; Democrats, long perceived as the party of the "little guy," turning rich and turning their backs on the transformation (this includes President Obama, by the way); and the ordinary people left looking at the prosperity that's moved on without them. "What about us?" isn't just the question of the dress shop owner in the village who can't fulfill the desires of the "rich weekenders" who are taking over. It's the only thing any of them are asking—and one that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump seems poised to answer in a way that will, ahem, make America great again for everyone.

It is no great shock, then, that preparing a simple dinner of casserole and salad on the night of September 16, 2016 (not coincidentally, the play's opening night and primary press performance) begins with the heroic avoidance of these difficult truths but gradually submits to them; by the end, it's a wonder any of them are able to eat at all. And in this atmosphere, harmless actions take on chilling new significance, often with no notice—you may think, for example, that everyone is going through the books and papers of Thomas Gabriel (who died shortly before Hungry) to see what they can safely clean out and what deserves to be kept, but there's a much darker reason for their scavenging. And when you discover what it is, the tenor of the play, and in many ways of all Nelson's plays in both of these series, shifts toward something far sadder and more compelling still.

Nelson is virtuosic in his ability to tackle these issues and many more by dancing around them in his writing, which he has paired with a no-frills staging on the set by Susan Hilferty (who also did the quiet, quaint costumes) and Jason Ardizzone-West that matches it note for muted note. (The lighting, by Jennifer Tipton, does so as well, but more subtly.) And the acting, again by a peerless ensemble, bestows unheard-of life on this painfully naturalistic rendering of a people a country in crisis.

Maryann Plunkett remains absolutely stunning as Mary, the late Thomas's (third) wife, who is trying to hold the family together while still barely able to accept her husband is gone. Her Mary is fearlessly maternal but also visibly fragile, simultaneously capable of great feats of strength while looking as though she spends her every waking moment trying to fight back tears. It can't be easy for Plunkett to maintain such positioning for as long as she's required to, but she does, and in doing so provides the riveting core for the evening—and, to this point, this trilogy.

But Jay O. Sanders, as Thomas's brother, George, a carpenter unwittingly on the front lines of Rhinebeck's kindling class wars, is practically as good as he fuses stoicism with despair; so tenuous is his grip on control that you suspect he's crying his eyes out, whether figuratively or literally, whenever you can't see him. Lynn Hawley is heartbreaking as George's wife, Hannah, letting us see how the societal changes before them all are weighing down on her, even as she lacks the ability to push them back. Roberta Maxwell is a picture of flailing independence in her fierce but unadorned portrayal of Thomas's ailing 82-year-old mother. And Amy Warren, as Thomas's sister, Joyce, and Meg Gibson, as his first wife, Karin, give detailed, intelligent portrayals that hint at how hard both women are working to hide their true emotions at the times they're needed least. (As Joyce is a costume designer and Karin an actress, this makes sense.)

The problem, such as it is, with What Did You Expect? is that, like its predecessor, it feels more like a proof-of-concept exercise than a play. Setting the Apple plays on significant nights (two major elections, and the anniversaries of the September 11 attacks and the John F. Kennedy assassination) made it easier for Nelson to orient those as drama, whereas here the effect is more of six colliding character studies that bring the outside world into the theater but don't create a single universe of their own for you to visit and invest in. As such, it's not always easy to see the point of all the tangible strife that's on display.

That probably is the point, though: The United States and the Gabriels are at a significant crossroads, but can't see—or rationally predict—what might lie down any of the available roads ahead. In some ways, all the choices seem not just bad, but the worst they could possibly be; in others, anything seems preferable to the current state of affairs. What will happen to us and to them? We'll get one answer on the night of Election Day, November 8, when the third and final installment this story, Women of a Certain Age, premieres. That will fix the Gabriels on a potential solution for their ills, which could well help Nelson take this absorbing exercise to the next level. But chances are the real, lasting repercussions that day, for all Americans who have been abandoned by those who have vowed to represent them, will not fully be felt until longer all the votes have been counted and the curtain has come down on these six tragic but worthy lives.

What Did You Expect?
Through October 9
The Public Theater - LuEsther Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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