What Did You Expect?, the second installment of Richard Nelson’s trilogy at the Public subtitled The Gabriels: Election Year In The Life Of One Family, is literate (the characters tell a story about Melville; read from Edith Wharton and Euripides), aromatic (they cook a meal), and, arguably, misleading: The name “Trump” is uttered only once.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
Now, many surely feel that Donald Trump has in effect hijacked the 2016 presidential election, drawing most of the attention to himself, and it would be easy to speculate that the playwright won’t allow his fictional family to contribute to the Trumpian vortex. But the five women and one man in the play — all related in some way to Thomas Gabriel, a playwright and novelist who died about ten months earlier — don’t talk much about Hillary Clinton either.
Although it may be reasonable to assume from the subtitle of the series that it will focus on one family’s take on this year’s presidential election, that is not what has happened so far. During its two-hour running time, What Did You Expect?, which opened and is set on September 16, 2016, the characters talk for no more than a few minutes about politics. This was true as well of the first play in the series, Hungry, which was set (and opened) on March 4.
If it’s hard to attack this as unrealistic – surely, there are families somewhere who aren’t talking much about the 2016 campaign — the dearth of political discussion in Nelson’s series so far is frankly disappointing, especially since some of what the characters do say about the election surely reflect what many Americans are thinking:
“People are scared,” Joyce, Thomas’s sister (Amy Warren), says at one point. “Everyone I know is scared.”
“There’s no news anymore, what happened to news? It’s all screaming,” Hannah, Thomas’s sister-in-law (Lynn Hawley), says at another point. The election “just makes me feel dirty…Filthy. Like you just want to shower it off.”
Because Nelson was writing right up to the day of the play’s opening, there are references to events that have just occurred, including Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia. More than in the discussions, though, the play is political to the extent that it is presenting the way we live now via this one family. As the meal for which they have gathered proceeds, we eventually learn that the Gabriels are in financial straits. Their mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) lives in an assisted living facility but is three months in arrears and about to be kicked out unless the family can come up with $13,000. They are selling their piano, even though Thomas’s brother George (Jay O. Sanders) is a piano teacher. There is tension between the Gabriels, life-long residents of Rhinebeck, New York, and the rich people who have gentrified this upstate New York town a one-hour drive from Manhattan.
Much of what goes on in the play is random-seeming conversation, the family taken up with tidbits about art, culture, and history. The phrase “OK,” one character says, comes from ‘Old Kinderhook’, during the Martin Van Buren campaign for President. Kinderhook, a village in upstate New York, was Van Buren’s hometown. There is also a subtle effort to establish a theme about the place of women in society, which seems clearly derived from Clinton’s position as the first woman to be the presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.
The main strength of What Did You Expect? is not in the sparse dose of explicitly political discussion, nor in the factual tidbits (as interesting as some are), but in the way that the six actors credibly inhabit their characters. There is little conventionally dramatic in the play; rather, we witness the believable rhythms of real time as it unfolds. Theatergoers must abandon traditional notions of what constitutes a drama in order to appreciate Nelson’s approach, but the acting makes this much easier to do so.
We certainly should expect that the final installment of The Gabriels, entitled Women of a Certain Age, will be more explicitly about the presidential election. After all, it will be both set and open – and written – on Election Day, November 8, 2016.
What Did You Expect? is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through October 9, 2016.
THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family
Play Two: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Amy Warren
Scenic Designers Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West;Costume Designer Susan Hilferty; Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton; Sound Designers Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens; Production Stage Manager Theresa Flanagan. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell