That Hopey Changey Thing, a new play written and directed by Richard Nelson for the Public Theater Lab, attempts to show how individual Americans can and do talk about national politics. In this pseudo-Chekhovian drama, we watch an extended family in Rhinebeck, New York, gather for dinner on Election Night 2010. Holding a heartfelt discussion about the state of the nation, they eventually learn—through tears and laughter—to see each other as more than just donkeys or elephants.
Disappointingly, Nelson freights the moral crusade with hokey reconciliations and shopworn naturalism. And such highly educated characters—Manhattan lawyers, authors, and actors who read from The Cherry Orchard (a home foreclosure drama!)—hardly speak as ordinary Americans. Certain characters, like the eloquent attorney Richard (Jay O. Sanders), get the privilege of making their case forcefully to the audience. Rather than delving into a broader public’s thinking about power, money, and society, Nelson ultimately sets his sights on the liberal intelligentsia and rebukes them for their narrowness and lack of self-criticism. The play’s investigation of politics stays small and genteel, limited to how Blue Staters perceive Republicans and Democrats. But as this election’s aftermath reveals, there are greater depths to sound in America’s twisted political psyche.