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That Hopey Changey Thing

Richard Nelson's appealing new drama about a family gathering on Election Night 2010 benefits from a superb cast.

J. Smith-Cameron, Laila Robins, Maryann Plunkett,
Jay O. Sanders, and Shuler Hensley
in That Hopey Changey Thing
(© Joan Marcus)
At first, That Hopey Changey Thing, now at the Public Theater, looks to be the "disposable" work playwright Richard Nelson suggests it is in his program note. Taking place on November 2, 2010 -- which is when the opening audience watched it -- the comedy-drama has the earmarks of something already becoming a period piece.

Yet, there's something undeniably appealing here -- amid the topical references to Andrew Cuomo, Kirsten Gillibrand, Eliot Spitzer, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin (from whose snide comment the title is appropriated) and the political like -- that says the play will stand the test of time.

As election night begins, the Apple family members -- sisters Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), Marian (Laila Robbins), brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders, Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), and Jane's boyfriend Tim (Shuler Hensley) -- have gathered in their Rhinebeck dining room (designed by Susan Hilferty), where they discuss the immediate national issue as well as any number of subjects a family might include when they haven't seen each other for awhile, in part due to various low-grade resentments and estrangements. They're also there to consider Uncle Benjamin's troubling condition: he's had a heart attack and is experiencing memory loss.

As might be expected, the subtle political differences between and among the Apples is a problem. Although they're all left-leaning Democrats, they do disagree. In one instance, Marian badgers Richard, who spent years as a lawyer in the state attorney general's office, about his suddenly taking a position in a Republican firm. At another point, Richard assails his siblings for dissing Palin even before anything substantial was known about her in 2008.

But there's also singing and even reading from Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, not totally surprising as Uncle Benjamin and Tim are actors. (The Chekhov reading is Nelson's tip of the hat to the show's larger influence.) And nothing really changes before Richard, Jane and Tim leave for their New York City homes, and Barbara, who's taking care of Uncle Benjamin, is left to clean up, while Marian goes to the piano with her uncle to play "All Through the Night."

Even while prepared to accept his play's possible short shelf-life, Nelson has maximized its potential by directing six actors who couldn't be better. DeVries, Hensley, Plunkett, Robins, Sanders, and Smith-Cameron let the dramatic moments ebb and flow without ever overplaying their hands. As required, they simply talk, listen, and touch. It's a commendable instance where the acting family that plays together earns praise together.