Richard Nelson’s allegorical Apple family—yup, as in Big—only 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 Sad—a family-drama-as-political-thinkpiece that’s the second installment in a projected trilogy—it’s 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-time—conversations like those happening all over the liberalsphere. This chattiness is both Sweet and Sad’s 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 (he’s helped by an expert cast). But in order to get all his ideas in, the Apples—teachers, artists, salt of the liberal earth—must do an awful lot of symbolic heavy lifting.
Each Apple’s biography—there are three siblings plus an uncle and a visiting boyfriend—is subtly calibrated to reflect recent history. They’re more talking points than people: Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer—once of the Attorney General’s office, now lately of Wall Street—stands in for the corporatization of justice. Marian (Laila Robins) mourns her daughter’s suicide—this allows Nelson to ponder grief and remembrance without stooping to a direct family connection to the 9/11 victims (but the daughter’s 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 choir—an image of harmonious unity that today’s America sorely lacks. Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) and her boyfriend Tim (Shuler Hensley), rumpled creative-types, bemoan the city’s increasing inhospitality to artists. Finally there’s 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 schematic—well, 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 York’s continuing transformation into a playground for the very rich, anger at the political misuse of 9/11. The outside world doesn’t 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.