For all its vaunted and valiant effort to keep theater alive during the Covid-19 pandemic, an essential truth remains: Energy, transferred from actor to actor, and from actors to audience, all in close, purposely discomfiting proximity to each other, is the necessary and missing ingredient essential to the experience. It’s what makes the dynamo hum. In our isolation, which seems endless, we miss it. In our attempts during the interregnum to replace it, we miss it even more.
Richard Nelson’s Zoom trilogy of Apple family plays written during the time of the coronavirus makes this point even while exploiting it for poignant effect. The siblings we’ve come to know as intimately as our own over the past decade work fervently in their quiet, even way to maintain intimacy and immediacy while the monitors connecting (or, really, separating) them incite the opposite of familial tension and love. So we bring to these untheatrical events a shared history to fill in the gaps, both physical and emotional.
The latest and apparently last of them even requires three titles to make its point. I think it’s called Incidental Moments of the Day, an apt descriptive that Nelson draws from the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. This, however, is followed by The Apple Family: Life on Zoom. And that is followed by Part Three: A Pandemic Trilogy. I’d have been happy with just the first title, but I’ve had the good fortune of taking the entire Apple family journey since That Hopey Changey Thing, which was set, and opened on, election eve in November 2010 with the same basic cast that brings us to September 2020. Richard Linklater, eat your heart out.
Things haven’t gone as planned. A decade has brought us from the unifying exhilaration of Barack Obama’s win to the disintegration following Donald Trump’s win eight years later. Now, a cynical God machine has introduced a global virus that threatens the world’s very underpinnings. What hell is worse than other people? Now we know: It’s no people.
Incidentally, we start in Albany, where lawyer Richard Apple (Jay O. Sanders) has finally quit his job in the service of Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom he has long regarded with something less than enthusiasm. Richard is packing up to move, with his new girlfriend, back to his hometown of Rhinebeck, where he plans to write a history of the Hudson Valley village. With him on the same screen is his sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high school English teacher who’s driven up to help out.
Their sister Jane (Sally Murphy), a magazine writer, signs in from the Rhinebeck apartment she shares with her boyfriend Tim (Stephen Kunken), who’s mostly given up his New York acting career and manages a bar in the town. At the moment, however, he’s tuning in from his mother’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The third Apple sister, Marian (Laila Robins), also a teacher, is out on a first date and won’t make an appearance until just before the 70-minute play’s end. The occasion of this particular gathering is a promised appearance by Lucy Michael (Charlotte Bydwell), Barbara’s former student and now head of her own dance company, to present a new work from Western France, where she’s doing a residency.
Food is always a big part of their shared experience, and earlier Apple plays have centered on the preparation and eating of a meal in Barbara’s kitchen. In isolation, they’re reduced to leftovers and takeout and leftover takeout, more vulnerable to their personal quirks than when they’re all together. Whatever hopey changey thing they once had has all but drained from their lives.
“Remember what Benjamin used to say? When he’d lost his memory?” Jane recalls of their uncle, a renowned actor who succumbed to dementia early in the cycle. “He said, ‘I forget how to remember.’ That’s what it started to feel like. Days just slipping along, and like a circle.”
The conversation eases, if fretfully, into other issues of the day, Nelson’s fantastic gift being the ability to summon the ways quotidian flotsam can merge with the Big Stuff. Richard, who also has taken an interest in theater, references the true story of Canadian director Robert LePage, whose play SLAV was shut down by the Montreal International Jazz Festival in the wake of accusations of racism and cultural appropriation.
“The theater company, they all tried to defend themselves,” Richard says. “But of course their defense – ‘that we are all one people’ – ‘a common humanity’ – that’s completely suspect right now.”
Tim, Zooming in from the little bedroom in the house he grew up in, finds his notes in books that he read in high school, including James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Athol Fugard’s Notebooks. “You know, as I grew older,” Barbara says, almost mournfully, “I thought the world would get bigger, not smaller. … I believed that.”
There’s plenty of humor as well, of the kind native to family gatherings, as when Barbara proves predictably hopeless at retelling a joke Richard’s (unseen) girlfriend Yvonne has told her. It’s all as entrancing as this perfect jigsaw puzzle cast makes it to be, each personality fitting seamlessly with the others under the playwright’s direction.
Despite what I’ve said at the beginning of this review, there’s a high point in the play that transcends the boundaries of the boxes. At long last Lucy Zooms in from France, where it’s 3 a.m., to present a new dance solo from her cramped dining room. Set to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” the dancing fully captures the whiplash highs and lows of the moment. (The choreography is by Dan Wagoner, whose 1973 solo to this music, “Brokenhearted Rag,” Anna Kisselgoff in The Times called “kinetic jabberwocky.”) Bydwell is exquisite, and the interlude has a briefly tonic effect on the clan, radiating especially from Sanders’ rubbery face as it registers relief, awe, amusement, wonder and delight – a show in itself.
They are all so grateful. “I needed a little art in my day,” Tim says. Yes, that’s exactly right.
You can watch Incidental Moments of the Day for free at www.theapplefamilyplays.com through November 5, and on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoV7FwbqLrI.