By Tulis McCall
After seeing Hungry now at the Public Theater, the thought that was front and center in my noggin was, “How long can you cook spaghetti before it turns to mush?”
Water put on to boil on Page 68. Spaghetti in on Page 77. Spaghetti out on page 85. So that’s about 13 minutes, plus there was an indication of a new scene in which time passed. That pasta was boiling away the whole time. With the requisite wooden spoon laid crosswise to stop the pot from boiling over. But still… was it going to be one soggy mess of pasta? After all the work this family had done (well, the women anyway) chopping vegetables for ratatouille it seemed a shame that the theatre crew would have to eat soggy pasta as a side dish.
Oh, right, the story. First of all, egg on my face. I saw the other trilogy that Richard Nelson created, also taking place at important election milestones. Also set in Rhinebeck, NY. It took me most of this play to realize that these were not the same characters. Two of the original actors were back (Maryann Plunkett as Mary and Jay O. Sanders as George). As well, the setting was a kitchen and the others took place in dining rooms. Anyway – meet the Gabriels, who bear a striking resemblance to the Apple family of the previous trilogy, and not just physically.
The Gabriels, natives of this area of the Hudson River Valley, are feeling the pinch of the encroaching “rich people.” Chelsea Clinton (who now lives in a $10m apartment in Manhattan) was married here. And the wine at her wedding was from Clinton Corners – a stone’s throw away. The Eleanor Roosevelt Museum has been turned into a teachable moment that seems to be purposed to sway people to vote the Democratic ticket. The townies cling to each other during the week and avoid going out on the weekends when the abhorrent nouveau riche express themselves north.
The chatter during the preparation of the dinner wanders easily back and forth between how to chop vegetables to how many for dinner to the state of Patricia (Roberta Maxwell, of whom we do NOT see enough) the matriarch whose mental and physical abilities are diminishing. She has moved out of this very house that she shared with her oldest son Thomas and his wife Mary. The reason for this particular gathering is the scattering of Thomas’s ashes. It is now officially close to spring so the ice was assumed not to be to thick and the foot traveling not too treacherous. His first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) more or less invited herself to the festivities, and no one had the heart to say no as she is a friendly and submissive person.
Everyone has been affected by scattering Thomas’s ashes into the Hudson, and this casts a mood of reflection and self examination on everyone. Thomas was a writer, and his apparent long illness was a nightmare for Mary. She has had time to grieve, and now the next life chapters are waiting for her. George and his wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) are staying put geographically, as is Patricia. Sister Joyce (Amy Warren) is a vagabond costume designer often in transit and rarely in town, which is cause for some friction.
Indeed there are seeds of friction scattered everywhere. The familial as well as the philosophical. When the conversation finally, finally, finally turns to the present state of our political circus (right about the time that the water is put on to boil) we see that these people have the same deep worry that most of us sane folks do. It is present day, and Trump is trampling through the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored. These characters speak of premnitions of something awful happening: the wisdom of voting, or not, for Hillary because she is a woman; the feeling that we are all locked into a very strange movie; the idea that things are coming a little too close to Facism. Not to mention the question of why Warren didn’t run.
Nothing is sorted out or resolved. Much like life where we sit around and worry out loud until someone says – let’s talk about something positive. Let’s do that. So Richard Nelson gets points for realism. Indeed these characters are delivered with subtle skill all around. What the text does not get points for is hooking me in to a story that was larger than this family. The Theatre 101 question: Why is this night different from any other night? is never answered. As far as I can tell this is pretty much things as usual for the Gabriels. To be sure, the event of scattering a beloved’s ashes is nothing to be sneezed at. However, this event, in and of itself does not set off any fireworks or even mild frost heaves.
The Gabriel family, unlike the pot of water on the back of the stove, is set at simmer and never achieves a level any deeper than mildly interesting. Perhaps we will go deeper as this trilogy plays itself out during our never ending election season. One hopes. One hopes.
HUNGRY: Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
WITH Meg Gibson as Karin Gabriel, Lynn Hawley as Hannah Gabriel, Roberta Maxwell as Patricia Gabriel, Maryann Plunkett as Mary Gabriel, Jay O. Sanders as George Gabriel and Amy Warren as Joyce Gabriel
Sets by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, Costumes by Susan Hilferty, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton
The Public THeater, Oskar Eustice, Artistic Director and Patrick Willingham, Executive Director Presents HUNGRY in the LuEsther Theater on Saturday, February 27 and runs through Sunday, March 20. www.publictheater.org