For four years, playwright and director Richard Nelson acquainted us with a small upper-middle-class family from Rhinebeck, New York. Their small victories and massive losses played out over a quartet of quietly majestic dramas collectively titled The Apple Family Plays. Each premiered on the day they were set, written and rewritten to include up-to-the-minute references to politics or weather, largely performed by the same company of actors throughout.
Now, Nelson has embarked on what is perhaps an even more ambitious series: three plays all to open in the same year, examining the pleasures and agonies of a different Rhinebeck family as election season kicks into high gear. The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family kicked off at the Public Theater on March 4, a day after another quarrelsome GOP debate, with Hungry.
But the specter hanging over the modest Gabriel kitchen on South Street is not Donald Trump or Ted Cruz — it's the absence of Thomas Gabriel, a playwright and novelist who died four months ago. The extended family — his wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), brother George (Jay O. Sanders), mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), sister Joyce (Amy Warren), sister-in-law Hannah (Lynn Hawley), and first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson) — have gathered to send off his ashes and share a meal, which is cooked in great detail over the course of the play's 100 minutes.
As in all four of the Apple Family works, the characters are so affable, so friendly, so genuine, that it's almost like we're eavesdropping. We know we should feel bad about that (especially since they're still grieving), but Hungry seems so familiar that it's like being at home, wrapped in a warm blanket by the fire. After all, Hungry unfolds like a conversation among people who've known each other practically for their entire lives. It's as though we're long-lost relatives who've returned home and taken a seat on the sofa to have the comfort of family.
Though there's only a small discussion of politics (and a humorous conversation about the March 3 debate), Nelson's major gift here is the way he captures, in a way no other contemporary playwright yet has, the all-too-real fear among members of the Democratic Party: What if it collapses, and what if Hillary Clinton (naturally they're supporters) somehow screws it up? And does she even deserve to be president?
"It sort of feels to me like we're all about to jump off some crazy high cliff. Doesn't it?" asks Joyce at one point. "Jump or be pushed, Joyce?" replies Hannah. No matter what your party affiliation, if that doesn't grab you by the jugular, nothing will.
Directed with sharp precision by the author, Hungry features a company of actors whose work is so authentic we forget they aren't actually their characters. Sanders and Plunkett, a real-life married couple who also appeared in the Apple Plays at the Public, on tour, and in the public television film version, are the standouts. They're so in tune with Nelson's writing that the effect is devastating. Plunkett, in ostensibly the leading role of Thomas' adrift widow, particularly impresses with her ability to seem on the verge of a facade-cracking crying jag, but always summoning the internal energy to push it away.
The other company members are every bit their equal. Maxwell is feisty and stoic as their infirm mother; Warren is sharp as their sister; Hawley is lovely as an outsider who's worked her way into the family; and Gibson is impressive as the former insider who's working her way back home. The design team — Susan Hilferty (sets and costume), Jason Ardizzone-West (sets), Jennifer Tipton (lighting), and Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens (sound) — creates a recognizable kitchen atmosphere in a middle-class family home. There are no walls, but we know exactly what everything looks like.
Between now and November, Nelson will provide us with two more Gabriels plays, one opening amid the general election, and the other on Election Night itself. "God, it's going to be a long eight months," Hannah says of having to live through this contentious election cycle. It's doubly true for us, the eager audience members who have to wait so long to dine with the Gabriels again.