Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Hungry ***

Theatergoers who enjoyed Richard Nelson’s set of four plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York will be delighted that Nelson is back at the Public Theater with a new series of three plays about a different local family. “Hungry,” the first installment of “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family” opened on March 4, the same day that it is set. Coming up in September is “What Did You Expect?” and, on Election Day, the final play “Women of a Certain Age.” With “Hungry,” the series is off to a fine start. Nelson’s skill at incorporating feelings about events in the larger world into naturalistic family conversations is even more seamlessly realized here than in the Apple plays. The cost of this seamlessness is a lessening of drama and traditional plot, a tradeoff I can readily accept. The Gabriels have gathered to scatter the ashes of Thomas Gabriel, a playwright who died four months prior. The absolutely superb ensemble cast includes two holdovers from the Apple plays — Maryann Plunkett as Thomas’s widow, third wife and retired doctor, and Jay O. Sanders as his brother George, a piano teacher and cabinetmaker. The other family members present are George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), who works for a local caterer; George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an assistant costume designer who has come up from Brooklyn; and Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s frail but crusty mother who now resides in an assisted living facility. Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) is also there, a not wholly welcome guest. As the women prepare a supper of homemade bread, ratatouille over pasta, salad and apple crisp, they all discuss a multitude of issues, many of which suggest an underlying feeling of unease that has gripped the family and the country. Gentrification, carpetbagging, a diminishing sense of history, the toxic political environment, the need to preserve memories, an old book on housewifery and a unique method of determining the correct portion of pasta are all discussed. There is a sense of introducing the characters to lay the foundation for following their course in the two remaining installments. The archangel Gabriel was a messenger. We shall see what message these Gabriels bring. Susan Hilferty designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. Nelson is a notable exception (along with Alan Ayckbourn) to my rule that playwrights should not direct their own plays. I doubt that anyone could do as well. If you demand fast-acting drama, you will be miserable, but if you enjoy leisurely conversation by intelligent people, you will be quite content. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

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