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Sweet and Sad

Richard Nelson's new play is a cogent look at the nation's shared experience of life after 9/11. logo
Maryann Plunkett, J. Smith-Cameron, Shuler Hensley,
Jon DeVries, and Laila Robins in Sweet and Sad
(© Joan Marcus)
Richard Nelson's Sweet and Sad, now at the Public Theatre, is evidence that the playwright's prospective trilogy featuring the conversations of the Rhinebeck, New York-based Apple clan -- which began last year with The Hopey Changey Thing -- is shaping up as a significant, dramatic look at the way we live now.

More cogently, this play is Nelson's urgent take on the nation's shared experience of life after 9/11. The work, obviously and intentionally based on the plays of Anton Chekhov -- in particular, The Three Sisters -- features the six Apple family members at a buffet dinner before attending a memorial service.

Under Nelson's own stunning direction, this finely-turned ensemble -- Jon DeVries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robbins, Jay O. Sanders and J. Smith-Cameron - once again delivers naturalistic acting at its peak of perfection.

In the course of conversing, the Apples don't discuss the terrorist attack exclusively, though the first references to the day's preoccupation are brief remarks about the relief the members living in Manhattan feel at having left New York City. Only much later do they get to the "Where were you?" reflections.

When not talking about 9/11, the Apples' concerns include how actor Uncle Ben (DeVries) is dealing with his amnesia, how sister Marian (Robbins) is recovering (if at all) from her daughter's recent suicide, how sister Barbara (Plunkett) is handling Ben as her charge in the family, how brother Richard (Sanders) balances his billable time in a high-powered law firm with pro bono work, and how sister Jane (Smith-Cameron) and Tim (Hensley) are progressing in their relationship.

Nelson takes care that as the six glide from topic to topic, he often allows the edges of simmering resentments to show, while just as often revealing the strength and accompanying humor of their familial bonds.

Along the way, though, four of them come to tears over various preoccupations. Since they're all articulate and well-educated liberal-leaning Democrats -- which will put their views at odds with some audience members -- they air those views. At one point, Richard blurts out, "New York has to be one of the most parochial places in the country."

One might suspect that since Nelson's work is intrinsically embedded in the topical nature of 9/11, it will quickly date. On the other hand, if, as dramatic history has proven, those pieces most grounded in the specific end up being the most universal ones, Sweet and Sad can expect a long shelf-life.

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