Sweet and Sad Takes 9/11 to Brunch
Richard Nelson's allegorical Apple familyyup, as in Bigonly gets together for momentous national occasions. Last year, in That Hopey Changey Thing, it was the 2010 elections and a buffet dinner. Now, with Sweet and Sada family-drama-as-political-thinkpiece that's the second installment in a projected trilogyits the tenth anniversary of September 11th and a buffet brunch. (The production, which Nelson also directs, opened at the Public Theater on the 11th ). A play featuring a buffet lunch during the 2012 Presidential election must be forthcoming.
When the Apples convene, they talk politics, history, and Americana, in uninterrupted real-time meal-timeconversations like those happening all over the liberalsphere. This chattiness is both Sweet and Sads biggest asset and its greatest weakness. Nelson is a masterful writer of ordinary dialogue, deftly choreographing the ebb and flow of tableside conversation (including familial digs and power grabs). Except for some thuddingly didactic moments, he slips big themes smoothly into small talk (hes helped by an expert cast). But in order to get all his ideas in, the Applesteachers, artists, salt of the liberal earthmust do an awful lot of symbolic heavy lifting.
Each Apples biographythere are three siblings plus an uncle and a visiting boyfriendis subtly calibrated to reflect recent history. Theyre more talking points than people: Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyeronce of the Attorney Generals office, now lately of Wall Streetstands in for the corporatization of justice. Marian (Laila Robins) mourns her daughters suicidethis allows Nelson to ponder grief and remembrance without stooping to a direct family connection to the 9/11 victims (but the daughters last unanswered phone calls unavoidably suggest similar calls made from the towers). Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), who fled the city for Rhinebeck, now sings in a local choiran image of harmonious unity that todays America sorely lacks. Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) and her boyfriend Tim (Shuler Hensley), rumpled creative-types, bemoan the citys increasing inhospitality to artists. Finally theres uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a retired actor suffering from amnesia, whose condition cues much rumination on the nature of memory.
Nelson mostly handles difficult subject matter with care, but a few points are frankly manipulative: Barbara and Marian happen to discover at an estate sale the datebooks of an accountant killed in the attacks; the sisters describe pages of planned engagements fading to poignant blanks.
If this makes the play sound schematicwell, it is. Sweet and Sad is absorbing while you watch it, and troublingly vacuous on second thought. I kept waiting for Nelson to express a freshly observed perspective on the last decade, but what we get is the kind of lefty exasperation you could overhear at any restaurant in Park Slope: Obama disappointment, rage at New Yorks continuing transformation into a playground for the very rich, anger at the political misuse of 9/11. The outside world doesnt enter into it. The Apple brunch table is as much a political echo chamber as Fox News.
The best way to remember 9/11, the play suggests, is to do what the Apples do: Get together with the people you love and argue about it. But New Yorkers have been doing that for a decade anyway.
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