Theater News

Richard Nelson Hits the Sweet Spot

The acclaimed playwright discusses his new 9/11 themed play, Sweet and Sad, and his other upcoming projects.

Richard Nelson
Richard Nelson

In That Hopey Changey Thing, which debuted last November at the Public Theater, playwright Richard Nelson introduced us to the Apple family — three sisters, their brother, an uncle and the boyfriend of one of the women — who gathered together at the Rhinebeck, New York home of the eldest sister on the night of the 2010 mid-term election, which was also the opening night of the play. The family, all Democrats of varying liberal stripes, had a meal together, caught up on their lives, and discussed current politics.

The Apples are back in Nelson’s Sweet and Sad, which begins on September 6 at the Public, and which is once again directed by the playwright and performed by the same cast of actors: Jon DeVries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jay O. Sanders, and J. Smith-Cameron. Once again, this singular family gathers in the same room for another meal and conversation, this time on the afternoon of September 11, 2011.

“I had this desire to put conversations on stage,” says Nelson, “conversations which are not arguments, not someone trying to win something or push something, but talk about whatever — that permission that we somehow don’t allow ourselves on television anymore, because now it is all about taking sides, or expressing one’s rage.”

Like much of Nelson’s work, the plays about the Apples in Rhinebeck invoke Chekhov, not just because of the overt references — there are three Apple sisters, and the actor uncle reads a passage from The Cherry Orchard in Hopey Changey — but for his keen interest and observation of humanistic behavior. “Chekhov means different things to different people,” the playwright comments. “What relates to me is that he puts the characters at the very center of the play. It’s a well that I go to remind myself or give myself the courage as a writer to continue to try to put human beings on the stage in all of their complexity and uncertainty.”

Nelson recalls talking about his idea for what he initially called “disposable plays” over breakfast with the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis. “I have sort of taken that term back a little bit now, but these are still plays which are specific in time and place, that would really engage an audience in the present, not trying for anything that is going to be monumental, but something incredibly present, and therefore, hopefully, are personal to all of us. So I started to think about the family over a period time under specific dates on which we could chart their course.”

Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Shuler Hensley,
J. Smith-Cameron, Laila Robins, and Jon DeVriesin Sweet and Sad. 

(© Joseph Moran)
Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Shuler Hensley,
J. Smith-Cameron, Laila Robins, and Jon DeVries
in Sweet and Sad

(© Joseph Moran)

While Nelson now plans for a third Apple play, which will open on the 2012 Presidential Election Night, and a fourth to follow after that, he hasn’t put pen to paper, as it were. “I can’t start the next play for many, many months because it needs to relate specifically to the time and place of its opening,” says Nelson. “Not only is it fair to say that that the Public is the premier downtown theater in Manhattan, so to do a play about 9/11 at that theater is a phenomenal opportunity, but given the history of the theater and their interests, this series of plays is a very good match.”

While Sweet and Sad is purely an American story, it’s not surprising that two of his upcoming projects — a play titled Farewell to the Theatre and the film Hyde Park on Hudson — reflect his long-time fascination with Great Britain.

Farewell to the Theatre, which premieres next March at London’s Hampstead Theatre, is about the great British director, producer, actor and playwright Harley Granville Barker. “It has the same title as a one-act play he wrote,” Nelson explains. “It takes place in 1916, during the time he wrote it, when he was ensconced, of all places, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Almost all the characters are British exiles, who happened to be there for one reason or another.”

Hyde Park on Hudson, which began life as a radio play for the BBC, stars Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt and focuses on a weekend in June 1939 when King George VI visited Hyde Park, New York (the first visit ever by reigning British monarchy to this country) for the purpose of persuading America to support the war with Germany. While FDR is the work’s focus, the story is seen through the eyes of Daisy Suckley (played by Laura Linney), a distant cousin of Roosevelt’s who is believed to have been the President’s mistress.

“The weekend is famously called the hot-dog picnic,” Nelson explains. “Roosevelt served the King and Queen hot-dogs and that became a big thing at the time with one side saying how dare we, and we look like idiots, and the other side saying we don’t believe in all that stuff because we are Americans.”

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Sweet and Sad

Closed: September 25, 2011