Things are looking up for the Apple family, but not for me, as the characters talk to one another on a Zoom call yet again. Richard Nelson’s third play in four months about the same set of characters is both the least engaging and the most problematic.
Over the seventy minutes of Incidental Moments of the Day, which will remain on YouTube through November 5, we learn that Richard (Jay O. Sanders) has a new girlfriend, Yvonne, who is an actress and a great storyteller (and whom we hear about, but never meet); his sister Marian (Laila Robins) is out on a date (“she’s really looking forward to having a meal with him. Because she’ll finally get to see his face. She’s never seen his face”); even their sister Jane (Sally Murphy) has had visitors and gotten out of the house, and is willing to admit she’s been suffering from depression – a word her boyfriend Tim (Stephen Kunken) has never heard her utter before. “Depression,” she replies. “And I’m not alone. There’s a pandemic.”
In other words, as the world around them slowly reopens, they themselves are slowly reopening . This will mean more to those viewers who watched the previous plays in the series, when they were in complete lockdown in more ways than one.
As with the previous Apple plays – there have now been seven all together, four of them at the Public Theater from 2010 to 2013 — the characters from Rhinebeck, New York are speaking in real time, and not much happens. They tell little stories, some that are mildly amusing, some that seem to imply some connection to a theme.
There are the same five characters, and the same spot-on cast portraying them, joined this time around by a sixth character, Lucy Michael (Charlotte Bydwell), a former high school student of the third sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett); Lucy is on a fellowship in Angers, France, and, since she’s a dancer, she dances for everybody.
As in the past, there are subtle insights into the inter-group dynamics. For example, Richard tells Jane (once Barbara has momentarily left the Zoom room) that Barbara is not reacting well to his new girlfriend; she’s so in her shell that Yvonne has to tell stories just to keep the conversation going.
But later, Barbara tells Jane (when Richard has left the room) that Yvonne is so talkative she doesn’t give anybody else a chance to say anything.
And, as with the past plays in the series, there comes a moment when the characters discuss an issue of the day.
I thought that approach worked exceedingly well in the first play, in April, What Do We Need To Talk About? And less well in July, with And So We Come Forth.I criticized that second play for largely neglecting the racial reckoning that was one of the two big issues in the news a month after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer.
To my surprise, the issue of race relations does get a more direct airing in Incidental Moments of the Day, but framed in an unexpected way.
It is introduced after a fade-out, when Barbara is in the middle of a conversation, recounting a conversation with a friend named Margaret telling her “I don’t think just being white makes me a racist. What do you think?”
We don’t learn any details of the incident that provoked this question, or even if there was a specific incident. But Barbara, continuing to speak from the point of view of her friend, says Margaret knows there are good reasons to be angry and hurt, “and for people wanting to right these obvious wrongs…but now, some of what is being done in the name of that, being demanded in the name of all of that, she really disagrees with. But how do you say that out loud? And not just get yourself labeled as something you’re not.”
This leads to Richard talking about an “ugly” incident in which a Canadian theater company was attacked for presenting a play about indigenous characters without having any indigenous actors portraying them. The theater’s defense, Richard says, “’we are all one people’ – ‘a common humanity’ – that’s completely suspect right now.”
Then Tim quotes from James Baldwin at some length, restating his mature belief that any theory is suspect, “’because even the finest principles may be pulverized…by the demands of life’” and that therefore “one must find one’s own moral center.”
Tim follows that up with a story of having found a quote from South African playwright Athol Fugard (“…my country needs to be loved now, when it is at its ugliest…”) and sending it off to a friend, whose terse, dismissive response evidently disgusted him: “Fugard’s white.”
I was taken aback by what seemed to me to be a clear perspective of white grievance and hostility toward the anti-racist protest movement of the last few months. (I excerpt more of this than I would normally to allow you to come to a different conclusion.) I’m sure these feelings exist, and they are thus worthy of dramatizing. However, given the unending series of police shootings of Black people and the mass multiracial protests in response, I would not have expected liberal New York Democrats (which is who the characters have always been) in September 2020 (which is when the play is set) to focus so exclusively on identity politics and so-called cancel culture and vague intimations of “what is being done in the name of…” righting wrongs. But these are Richard Nelson’s characters, not mine.
And he can have them back. Much as I’ve enjoyed them, and appreciated the authentic-feeling, warmhearted performances of the actors who portrayed them, there have been so many plays produced during the pandemic that have provided broader and fresher and more useful perspectives – such anthologies as Homebound Project, Viral Monologues and #WhileWeBreathe ; even the online production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which is about young Catholic conservatives. Mainstream cable/streaming services have even started presenting stories about life during the pandemic — Love in the Time of Corona on FreeForm, Coastal Elites on HBO.
Incidental Moments of the Day is billed as the final installment of Nelson’s pandemic trilogy. If I considered the first installment perfectly timed – a precise reflection of our sudden new era – it’s a good time now to end the series.
Incidental Moments of the Day
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Lucy Michael…………….Charlotte Bydwell
Tim Andrews……………..Stephen Kunken
Jane Apple………………..Sally Murphy
Barbara Apple……………Maryann Plunkett
Marian Apple Platt……..Laila Robins
Richard Apple……………Jay O. Sanders