by Tulis McCall
One reason that theatre is so mysterious and wonderful: it only seats one in that space between your ears.
You should know that at the end “Pictures From Home” an intermission-less play, the audience stood up, pretty much en masse. Most of them were either cheering or weeping. My companion and I sat in our seats shaking our heads. We appeared to be in one room and the rest of the audience in another – far far away.
Here is what I saw. To begin with, this play has no plot. Set in the mid 1980’s, our narrator Larry Sultan (Danny Burstein) tells us that for the past 8 years he has been spending a few days a month at his parents’ home in the San Fernando Valley photographing them. The proof is projected on the set wall. These are the actual photos of the actual parents, not to be confused with the actors Nathan Lane (Irv) and Zoë Wannamaker (Jean).
Larry is not only a well-known photographer, he is a professor of same up near San Francisco. As well as photographing his parents over the past 8 years he has married, fathered a son, and is now expecting a second child. If you do the math he has been away been away from them for a total of a year. Now there is a story.
But no. Not that simple.
Instead, we witness his father (Lane has all the best lines) and mother express varying degrees of frustration on what the hell their son is doing. Everything from short tempered to full on belligerent. Larry responds with varying degrees of existential theories that never quite lead anywhere.
The end. That is the story. Which is no story.
Along the way the characters speak directly to us or they don’t. To add to the confusion, these actors are given no business. Nothing to do when they are not speaking. Burstein holds his camera as if it were make of bone china. I have never seen a photographer spend more time NOT taking photos. Wannamaker charges about looking for what seems to be the same set of real estate files over and over again. She never sits to review any information. She is a woman on the move at all times. Lane practices his golf swing over and over again while not pulling flowers out of the side yard. It is like watching puppets strung up on a mobile. These characters never connect.
And when it comes to the scene where they are all supposed to be working together to create a barbeque, Burstein takes on the task of making the hamburgers. Except he can’t. The meat is squeezed into lumpy balls with finger imprints that you can see from the 10th row.
I heard a story once that when a chef goes into a restaurant s/he will order the chicken, because if the kitchen cannot pull that off it is no use in ordering anything else. So too with the hamburger scene. If they couldn’t make that work, there was little point in doing any of the rest.
A nod to Zoë Wannamaker here who has to create an entire life out of nothing. Most of the time she is onstage she is not speaking. She has to tread that delicate balance between listening and not listening. Focusing on the two men or focusing on something else. She makes it work.
And not for nothing – Burstein and Lane are 10 years apart in age. Burstein also happens to be 16 years older than Larry would have been at the time he tells this story. Under other circumstances this might not make a difference because theatre is filled with moments of what we call suspended disbelief. In this case, however, it makes a difference.
The people who were weeping were touched by the story of a man struggling to connect to his parents in the best way he knew how. He marveled at their lives – the commitment, the struggle and ultimately the slide into the decline that awaits us all.
I congratulate those people who could look past the tepid writing and direction. They got something out of this play and thought of their own parents’ journeys. I am not so patient. I don’t know how this play made it past the first readers and ended up in the “Yeah, let’s do this” pile on anyone’s desk. As an example of sophomoric navel gazing – this production is a 10. As an example of a play that does what it sets out to do – touch your heart for example – this play is a goose egg.
Life’s magic pageantry.
Pictures From Home – Based on the landmark photo memoir by Larry Sultan, adapted to the stage by Sharr White, directed by Bartlett Sher,
WITH Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker
The design team for Pictures From Home includes Michael Yeargan (Set Designer), Jennifer Moeller (Costume Designer), Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Designer), Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still (Sound Designers), and Ben Pearcy at 59 Productions
Tickets for Pictures From Home are now available at picturesfromhomebroadway.com, by phone at 833-CRI-TIXS (833-274-8497) and in person at the Studio 54 on Broadway.