Review: In Pandemic-Inspired What Happened?, Richard Nelson Asks the Same Questions We All Are

The last play of Nelson’s ”Rhinebeck Panorama” debuts at Hunter College.

Jay O. Sanders, Haviland Morris, Yvonne Woods, Rita Wolf, Maryann Plunkett, and
Charlotte Bydwell in a scene from What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad
Jay O. Sanders, Haviland Morris, Yvonne Woods, Rita Wolf, Maryann Plunkett, and
Charlotte Bydwell in a scene from What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad
(© Jason Ardizzone-West)

"My first trip back into the city, I thought it would feel strange," she says. "What surprised me is that it felt normal. And suddenly everything that'd come before – all of it – felt like a dream."

Simple words, yet in a not-quite-post-pandemic world of returning to the theater, it's an oddly profound statement. It comes midway through Richard Nelson's elegiac play What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad, running through October 8 at Hunter College's Frederick Loewe Theatre, and it underscores what we're all thinking now as we once again resume sitting knee to knee with strangers in the dark, masked and vaccinated, and reflecting on what the heck we were just fortunate enough to survive.

The (supposed) last play in Nelson's Rhinebeck Panorama series, What Happened? is the only of the 12 dramas to be set outside the bucolic New York State town and instead takes place in Angers, France. There, rising dancer and choreographer Lucy Michael (Charlotte Bydwell) has been on a six-month residency that has ballooned, for pandemic reasons, into a year and a half. Lucy is the daughter of Rose Michael, a legendary modern dance choreographer who has recently passed away from Covid complications while battling ovarian cancer. Lucy's father, David (Jay O. Sanders), his wife, Sally (Rita Wolf), and Kate Harris (Maryann Plunkett), her mother's widow, among others, are in the small town for Lucy's big presentation, in which she'll pay tribute to the landmark works of Rose's career.

Like the 11-preceding works in the cycle (including the three from 2020 which were presented as Zoom conversations), What Happened? is set over the course of two hours as the attendees cook (in this case, a lasagna that smelled divine even with masks on) and debate the events of the world. David, an arts manager, wonders about taking a job running a performing arts center in Utica with a friend who resigned from a New York theater company after the Black Lives Matter movement; Irenie (Havlind Morris), a former dancer with Rose's now-defunct company, reflects on spending a year in lockdown with the only companionship coming from her dog; Suzanne (Yvonne Woods), whose house in Angers is where they've gathered, is distressed at the prospect of being all alone once Lucy and her younger cousin May (Matilda Sakamoto), also a dancer, eventually depart. It's impossible for them not to discuss Rose, the erstwhile matriarch, and each character's heartache is still present in different ways.

What Happens? is not just a play about grief, but about what happens to family traditions when the person responsible for them shuffles off the mortal coil. It's a subject I suspect a lot of people will relate to, and because of that (and the fact that it's set on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, a family gathering holiday), I found What Happens? to be perhaps the most moving play in Nelson's Rhinebeck series, filled with raw, honest emotion that's amplified by 18 months of loss.

The performances, as typical, are just wonderful. Nelson's plays (which he also directs) are usually a vehicle for Plunkett, an actor who can wring tears from even the driest eyes, and in What Happened?, that's no different. She's equally matched, like always, by real-life husband Sanders, whose acting here is unexpectedly vulnerable and really quite beautiful, as well as Bydwell, who, with Sakamoto, performs a series of ornate dances around the very tiny performance space.

Because of that elaborate dance sequence, What Happened? might be a shock for certain audience members for whom this is their first time out. The actors and audience are on top of each other, and while audience members all there masked, being that close to a group of unmasked performers talking and breathing on each other (and occasionally us) will feel a little jarring, despite the knowledge that everyone in the room is fully vaccinated. But if you can get past that, it's well worth the trip for this lovely little play that asks the same questions we all have, and grapples, just as we do, with the fact that there are no easy answers when it comes to this brave and scary new world.

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