By Stanford Friedman
After 18 months of isolation, one week blurring into the next, the seven characters in Richard Nelson’s delicate and thoughtful new play, What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad, are ready to gather together and take account of the days lost. And while the pandemic is certainly a haunting specter here, right down to the masked audience members spying each other in the round, the lifeblood of Nelson’s work is not so much infected by a virus as it is possessed by the passage of time and the burden of distance. This ensemble of family and friends revel in the past, feel shaky in the present moment and hold barely a clue as to their future.
What Happened? Is the final installment of Nelson’s “Rhinebeck Panorama.” The eleven previous installments all took place in that upsate enclave, and examined the struggles of three different families: the Apples, the Gabriels, and, in 2019, the Michaels. This entry closes out the two-part Michaels series. Those who have seen any of the eight previously staged pieces (three others were presented virtually) will surely recognize this production’s theatrical flourishes. The action begins with cast members literally rolling out the carpet, setting up the chairs and bringing in the props. Scenes end with a sudden blackout accompanied by the sound effect of a deep exhale, as if taking a breath between reading large passages. Stories are shared around a large table in a kitchen where a meal is cooked in a functional oven (cauliflower lasagna and freshly baked bread this time around).
This kitchen happens to be in Angers, France rather than Rhinebeck, at the home of Suzanne (Yvonne Woods), a former dancer in a troupe founded by Rose Michael. Those who have come to call include Rose’s ex-husband, David (Jay O. Sanders), David’s current wife, Sally (a stealth Rita Wolf), Rose and David’s daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell, dancing divinely), Rose’s niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto), Irenie (Haviland Morris) who is another former dancer in the troupe, and Kate (Maryann Plunkett), who we come to learn is Rose’s widow.
It is not a spoiler to divulge that Rose has leapt to the great beyond. Cancer-ridden, she was at its doorstep in the first Michaels play. And though she does not appear in the flesh, her spiritual presence is clearly the driving force at work here. The gang have made this trip to watch Lucy and May take part in a dance festival with performances inspired by Rose’s choreography, as well as to deal with the matter of what to do with Rose’s belongings back in New York State; and to process their collective grief. Lucy and May each have their own flavor of guilt to deal with, David is transfixed by his memories and Kate floats in an exhausted acceptance.
If it is possible for a hyperrealist domestic drama to contain a dream ballet, that is exactly what happens three-quarters of the way into the evening when May and Lucy (wearing her mother’s dress no less), perform four dances. One, based on Rose and David’s romance is entitled, “My Dad Courts My Mom,” while another, “May’s Mom’s Cocktail Hour,” draws its inspiration from Rose’s sister. Besides neatly bringing physicality to memory, the dances have the added benefit of providing brisk movement to a staging that is otherwise, by design, static.
One can fully enjoy this solid production without having seen the first Michaels play, but for those who did, there is bonus symmetry aplenty. Where Kate did the hosting duties for a weary Rose in part one, it is now Suzanne hosting a tired Kate. Kate had made a French meal back then, an apparent subconscious nod to her desire for an ex-lover who was living in France. Suzanne’s Italian fare, by contrast, seems to be a passive blow at the Italian woman, and “terrible cook,” who recently married her older brother, stealing him away from her. It is also joyful to track the trajectory of Sanders and Plunkett, real-life husband and wife and a constant presence in Nelson’s productions. In the Apple family they were siblings. In the Gabriel clan they were brother and sister-in-law. And here they are the start and endpoints of a matrimonial spectrum which succinctly encompasses a family’s ties. What happened? David married Rose too early and Kate married Rose too late.
What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad – Written and directed by Richard Nelson.
WITH: Charlotte Bydwell (Lucy), Haviland Morris (Irenie), Maryann Plunkett (Kate), Jay O. Sanders (David), Matilda Sakamoto (May), Rita Wolf (Sally) and Yvonne Woods (Suzanne).
Sets by Jason Ardizzone-West; Costumes by Susan Hilferty; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton; Sound by Will Pickens. Production Stage Manager Theresa Flanagan. The Hunter Theater Project at the Frederick Loewe Theater, Hunter College, 119 E. 68th St. www.huntertheaterproject.org, 212-772-5149.. Tue-Sun at 7:30 with Sat. matinees at 2:00 and Sun. matinees at 3:00, and select Thursday matinees. Through October 8. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with no intermission. Masks and proof of vaccination required.