It's the cycle of American success: A poor man works hard and becomes rich enough to send his son to art school, where he picks up all sorts of highfaluting notions about truth and narrative that he uses to bite the hand that feeds. This is a simplified version of the central conflict in Sharr White's Pictures From Home, now making its world premiere at Broadway's Studio 54. It's about a lot more than father-son angst, though. In 100 minutes, White considers the durability of marriage, the fragility of myth, and the ways we determine what really matters in our limited time on earth.
Pictures From Home is an adaptation of the 1992 photo book by Larry Sultan featuring pictures of the photographer's parents, some taken from family archives and others more recent. Out of context they are remarkably mundane (a woman unbagging groceries, a man napping on a sofa), but all together they tell the story of a family going west to pursue the American dream.
Irving Sultan (Nathan Lane) is a retired executive, having worked his way up from traveling salesman to vice president of sales for the Schick Razor Blade Company. He made the leap that Willy Loman never could when he decided to move the family from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. He now wants to move with his wife, Jean (Zoë Wanamaker), to Palm Desert for their final years. But for the better part of a decade, his photographer son, Larry (Danny Burstein), has been showing up at their home in the Valley to take photos of their life together.
Irving worries that this project is "one long, slow-motion judgment" meant to ridicule his life's work. It doesn't help that Larry (who teaches photography at California College of the Arts) waxes professorial about myth and image, especially the way photography can be used to create and sustain these false impressions. "The image of success, Larry, didn't buy you every fucking thing you had your entire life," Irving testily retorts. "Actual success did."
But what of the fact that Irving was fired from Schick 14 years ago, and Jean has been the breadwinner since then? Irv dismissively calls her work as a realtor a "hobby", even though she moved $18 million worth of property in her first year. This is a story that Irv's preferred photos (him looking like a visionary executive, Jean smiling as she shaves her legs) fail to tell — and Jean certainly avoids the topic until she is pushed to the brink.
Wanamaker deftly performs this wifely balancing act, tiptoeing around Irving's pride as she rushes off to another showing. That's not to say she's completely submissive: Their shouting matches, in which Wanamaker impressively holds her own against human bullhorn Nathan Lane, have the authentic counterpoint of an old married couple. But crucially, like a real long-term couple, they only raise their voices for the things that don't matter.
Lane and Burstein also have a convincing father-son dynamic, even though the latter is only 9 years younger than the former (hair, wig, and makeup designer Tommy Kurzman is a real magician). Lane once again proves his ability to wring the maximum amount of humor out of every line, comfortably occupying the disputed territory between hilarious and cruel. When he veers too far into the latter, we know it from Burstein's heartbreakingly wounded expression. He's like a puppy, simultaneously adorable and annoyingly underfoot. We root for him to succeed, even though we're glad Larry is not in our homes taking photos of us at our worst.
Director Bartlett Sher wisely gives plenty of breathing room to these three veteran actors with a staging that is powerful and effective in its simplicity. A scene in which Irv attempts to have a sensitive conversation while weaving in and out of the house is a real hoot, perfectly capturing the hit-and-run tactics of a person who doesn't want to be there yet still wants the last word.
Jennifer Moeller's costumes act as another exercise in image-making for all three characters: Athleisure wear for Irv, feminine business casual for Jean, and black on black for Larry (this artist's attempt to confound superficial judgment does nothing of the sort). Michael Yeargan's set suggests the house in the Valley without re-creating every detail, leaving the upstage wall bare so that 59 Productions can project Sultan's actual photos onto it. Here too we see the gap between source material and artistic interpretation, with the theater adding an extra layer of commentary on a book that is already curated to tell a particular story.
This is most blatant when the characters speak directly to the audience, pleading their cases in ways photographs cannot. White gives a fair shake to all three, as he did in his political drama The True. His script is further enhanced by fleshy and relatable performances, which make clear what this play is really about: Not abstract ideas about art and truth, but inevitable mortality. A still photograph cannot hope to capture all the messy and beautiful contradictions of a human family, but Pictures From Home gets awfully close.