When last we left the Gabriels — the cordial family at the center of Richard Nelson's latest play trilogy at the Public Theater — they were cooking a meal to celebrate the life of Thomas Gabriel, a noted playwright who had recently passed away. In What Did You Expect?, the second installment of Nelson's Election Year in the Life of One Family series, the grief caused by Thomas' absence has gotten the better of nearly everyone.
The Gabriels trilogy is a follow-up to Nelson's acclaimed quartet of Apple Family Plays, with both sharing a similar, highly theatrical trait: The plays are updated through the opening night with up-to-the-minute references to politics and popular culture. There's a specific acting company for each series, too, six performers who essay the same roles in each work. The result is the creation of an actual, believable family, the kind you can expect to be stung by the immensity of losing a brother or a spouse, and one that is, despite the goings-on, immensely enjoyable to spend time with.
What Did You Expect? is set six months after the first Gabriels installment, Hungry. Thomas Gabriel (who is never seen) died nearly a year ago. His ex-wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), has moved into the stately Rhinebeck family home now that his mother, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), has moved into a retirement inn close by. Patricia's financial debts are at the center here; the family members are looking for as many valuable items as they can sell off to try and pay down the bills. That includes the prized Bechstein upright piano, which Thomas' siblings, George (Jay O. Sanders) and Joyce (Amy Warren), will find difficult to lose. As they gather with George's caterer wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), to cook for a picnic, the small family, which also includes Thomas' wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), look at the prices they must pay to live in a world they no longer recognize.
While What Did You Expect? does have a plethora of topical references — Jimmy Fallon tugging on Donald Trump's hair, Hillary Clinton's pneumonia, the almost unbearably hot summer in the New York — this play, unlike Hungry, does not rely heavily upon them. Instead, they're brought in to provide a covert look at the toll the media has taken on an average family of upper-middle-class people.
Director Nelson and the six-member company convey their bleak emotions with great finesse. While they accurately portray the fears of the post-recession world, their performances are anything but average. Plunkett (as always) is particularly stunning as a woman broken by a loss that she still hasn't entirely accepted yet; her naturalism is so convincing that it's almost superhuman. As her brother-in-law, Sanders (also her real-life husband) conveys the uneasy emotions of an alpha male who has been cut down a few sizes by life's travails. Gibson, Warren, and Hawley quietly round out this clan, making way for Maxwell's silent befuddlement to take center stage at crucial points.
Designers Susan Hilferty (sets and costumes), Jason Ardizzone-West (sets), Jennifer Tipton (lighting), and Scott Lehrer and Will Pickens (sound) should get credit too for their creation of the seventh Gabriels character, the house. There are no walls, only tables, chairs, a stove, and a fridge, but the look, like the performances, is so detailed and precise that it allows us to envision everything about this place in our heads.
We're coming to the end of the line in the Gabriels series. The last play, Women of a Certain Age, opens on a fateful date in our country, November 8, Election Day. If dining with the Gabriel family is fraught with this much exquisitely agonizing tension now, it's hard to imagine how tormented they'll be on that decisive day, one that could change their world in an even more extreme way.