The Apple family drives me bonkers. This doesn’t mean I don’t like watching them, because who doesn’t like watching people that make you grateful you are not related. No wait – I would like to be related to Benjamin (John DeVries). His head, though addled, seems to be the only one screwed on right.
I have sent three out of the four Apple plays, and the thing that strikes me about them is that everyone seems bent on having a teaching moment. In this incarnation Jane (Sally Murphy) and her beau Tim (Stephen Kunken) are into acapella choral music, as well as a few items of useless knowledge like a state sduy on the value of a hum life as well as the meaning of the word nightmare.. The family has just hosted a dinner/visiting time for Adam, the ex-husband of Marian (Laila Robins) who has been welcomed back to the family manse for a dignified death. His funeral instructions are detailed and include some haunting, and occasionally inexplicable, choices that feature selections from the first music sung by white people on this continent.
Barbara’s teaching moment comes because the date of the play is November 22, 2013, which is the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Barbara has original newspaper articles and the family reads from Tom Wicker’s account of the day. Barbara educates the listeners on the subtleties of the writing – how one word or even a punctuation mark makes all the difference.
Marian is all about Adam, his mother and the caretaker. She has one ear to her siblings and another attached to the baby monitor they have resurrected for the occasion. Adam has days, if not hours, remaining.
Benjamin has run out of teachable moments, but his fascination with his own mind’s journey and with the crumbs he picks up from his nieces and nephew is completely engaging.
But the one with, it appears to me, something to say is brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders) who is separated from his wife and living in self inflicted exile in Albany. His stories of the comings and goings there crackle with life and vitality. As does his relentless teasing of his sisters.
Not for nothin’ – these characters are presented brilliantly by this cast who must have come to know them like a second skin (hats off to Sally Murphy and Stephen Kunken are newcomers whose arrival is seamless).
It is just my particular druthers that I prefer action to talk about action. When these siblings connect it is only in bits and spurts. They act as if they all had new skin and any contact with another person is fraught with fear and anticipation of the pain. They are forever apologizing for something they said or being disappointed by a comment that someone else delivered (with the obligatory apology). They seem to be caught in one giant eddy that is leading nowhere. Why they keep coming together when there is barely a breeze of happiness drifting through their Rhinebeck manse is a mystery that Mr. Nelson never addresses.
The most direct and memorable scene is the one in which the three sisters confront Richard with #1) serious concern for his mental state and #2) an invitation to move back home and live with them. The combination of the two is so overwhelming in all the negative ways possible that Richard is reduced to tears with no one but Benjamin looking on. Benjamin speaks:
It will be all right, son. That’s what I always try and tell myself…
This surely is the banner for the Apple family who are all leading lives of quiet desperation. In this case, the combination is stultifying and frustrating and nearly sucks the air out of the theatre. Happy Holidays, eh???
Regular Singing – Written and directed by Richard Nelson
WITH: Jon DeVries (Benjamin Apple), Stephen Kunken (Tim Andrews), Sally Murphy (Jane Apple), Maryann Plunkett (Barbara Apple), Laila Robins (Marian Apple) and Jay O. Sanders (Richard Apple).
Sets and costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; sound by Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens; production stage manager, Pamela Salling; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; general manager, Steven Showalter; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. A PublicLab production, presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village, 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Through Dec. 15. Running time: 2 hours.