It is September 2016 and like many Americans who slogged through an endless, brutal summer of presidential campaigning, the Gabriel family seems frayed around the edges.
Uncertainty, unease has started to creep in over their chosen candidate. “Please Hilary, be human,” they plead, as if Clinton is privy to their talk around the kitchen table. The family ponders about whether or not to watch the debates, as our nation’s waking nightmare forces us to look unbleary-eyed at who we are and is this really our country.
The second of Richard Nelson’s brilliant trilogy of plays about the Gabriels of Rhinebeck, N.Y., What Did You Expect?, is a wake- up call to the new normal, each day a fresh assault that crumbles whatever you believed you could depend on. Except the Gabriels have each other and that’s all that matters for now.
As in the first play, Hungry, they gather in the well-used family kitchen preparing food, in this case the usual Friday night dinner and a “literary picnic” the next day for new rich friends of George’s (Jay O. Sanders) he hopes will give him carpentry work. George’s impassionate description of the picnic, which will recreate the historic meeting of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a tour de force of historic geekiness and longing by Sanders’ George, although accompanied by much eye-rolling by the female Gabriels. Sanders’ mastery of the unhinged soliloquy is topped only by his sublime “pizza and fellatio” speech in Hungry.
Amid all this food prep and practiced light bickering stands Mary (Maryann Plunkett), the widow of eldest brother Thomas, a playwright, still bright and teary with grief. She is going through Thomas’ things with Karin (a politely wheedling Meg Gibson), Thomas’ first wife, who has moved in to help with expenses. Every page they turn from one of Thomas’ plays, every notation in a margin, every anecdote they recall brings Thomas back to life and burning in Mary’s mind and heart. You could watch Plunkett’s face all day, so generously and cleanly do the emotions play across her features.
But there is also a hard practicality to this trip down memory lane. Mary and Karin are looking through his books and papers for valuable items she can sell off. The cozy permeability of the Gabriel kitchen proves to be transitory, as all the Gabriels desperately search for money—possibly selling the cherished family piano, good furniture, books, jewelry and other heirlooms. Even the house itself, which they discover mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell, skillfully revealing that she still controls her adult children) has reverse-mortgaged up the wazoo, having fallen prey to this and other elder scams. George and wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley, exuding dour fury) have to tap into their son’s college fund to bail out Patricia, planning to take her into their home and out of her unaffordable retirement community.
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What Did You Expect? Play Two, The Gabriels
Election Year in the Life of One Family
closes January 22, 2017
Details and tickets
Money, not so much politics, seems paramount in What Did You Expect?, although the specter of the upcoming election surrounds the Gabriel home like a toxic river. But then again money, who has more of it and who doesn’t, was the crass theme of the 2016 presidential run.
But even the rich, whom the Gabriels have served for countless generations, have proved unreliable in this American funhouse of distorted mirrors. They are fickle, clan-like and don’t believe the rules apply to them.
This play is the one that was almost a PTSD experience. If you’ve ever had to clean out the family home before selling it and comb through boxes, closets and bureau drawers hoping that somewhere is a letter, a trinket or some sort of memorabilia that will put the family in the money—only to realize what is precious and permanent to you is at best yard sale fodder—prepare to have Nelson’s words and the simple eloquence of the actors reduce you to a husk all over again.
This play mopped up the floor with me because it made me relive a recent me—and other Americans—who tried to have hope, tried to cling to what we believed in, who could still see what was good and true in our fellow man. The We the People we used to be.
How naïve we were to think that it was our time, no, our absolute right, to have the first woman president in our history. How we were buoyed by our ideals, yet blind to the America that was actually out there. How dare we dream and assume that a female president was inevitable and right at this juncture in history, when the ugly truth of who we are as a nation was staring us in the face.
Like with the previous play, Nelson composes a symphony of housewifery punctuated by the sounds of cutting and slicing, stirring and cooking food. This rhythm is enlivened by the music of natural conversation, in this play there is the added dissonance of aging, as the family prompts each other, repeats themselves and experiences those inevitable memory lapses that come with accreting years.
The refrains this time around are: Where do we fit in? Where do I belong? Why don’t I feel part of this country anymore?
But one tonal motif rises above them all, chilling you to the bone despite the reciprocal warmth of the Gabriel kitchen—People are scared. Everyone is scared.
What Did You Expect?: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play two Written and directed by Richard Nelson . Featuring: Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren . Scenic Design: Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West. Costume Design: Susan Hilferty. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Sound Designers: Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens. Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan . Produced by Public Theater . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.