'The Apple Family' review: Intimate, lively

The cast of Regular Singing, written and directed

The cast of Regular Singing, written and directed by Richard Nelson, running at The Public Theater in repertory with The Apple Family Plays. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

In his program note for "That Hopey Changey Thing" at the Public Theater, Richard Nelson said something I'd never known a playwright to admit:

"I suppose this is what might be called a 'disposable' play," he began with quiet but alarming candor. "One so completely tied to a very specific time that its references and even concerns are certain to be soon out of date."

Then, he concluded with this shocker, "I accept that."

Really? Did this thoughtful, intelligent, Tony-winning artist actually write a 90-minute play in 2010 that he accepted as "disposable"? Did he continue to believe that as he wrote the three other extraordinary and moving plays in what has become an indispensable, not disposable tetralogy, "The Apple Family: Scenes From Life in the Country"?

So I asked him. It was days after he had seen all four plays, back-to-back, for the first time at one of the weekend marathons at the Public. (Alas, the run ends today but all four will be taped next week for public television by WNET. Check publictheater.org if you want to be in the taping audiences.)

It is here that the works, commissioned by the Public Lab, have been individually rolled out to coincide with significant political events. "Hopey" opened on the conservative-shifting night of the 2010 midterm elections. "Sweet and Sad" arrived on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. "Sorry" came on the day of President Barack Obama's re-election, and "Regular Singing" opened Nov. 22 on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.

All are intimate, lively and contentious conversations with the six-member Apple family, political progressives of growing disillusionment, who gather in sister Barbara's upstate dining room in Rhinebeck. All the dialogue is infused with up-to-the-moment observations -- about Gov. Andrew Cuomo, campaign finance, casinos, Obamacare.

But all these people -- played with unerring, complex naturalness by an ensemble that feels like family -- share an emotional life that appears so much more vital and resonant than just a time capsule of who we were when.

Nelson is feeling it, too, actually seeming a bit surprised himself as the "pieces of the puzzle come together. My discovery over time," he says, "is to realize that, even though the specifics change, the elements of truth are universal." Theatergoers from outside this country, people who know nothing about the detailed references and pointed gossip, have responded to what Nelson calls "snapshots of a group of people based around an event."

He no longer is convinced that the plays, inspired by the four acts of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," have such a definite sell-by date. He can't help but know that the conflicts and interactions are so much darker and deeper than timely news items.

In retrospect, Nelson sees that he may have written that disclaimer in the "Hopey" program because he wanted people -- and, clearly, himself -- "to enjoy the conversation between the stage and the audience without getting into speculation about how such specificity would travel or transfer. I wanted people to be part of the play, connected to the exact same day. If the play turns out to be disposable, fine. Just be a part of it."

And yet his original statement got me thinking about disposable theater. Are some plays so timely that they feel relevant right now but are not likely to hold their power in revivals? If so, does that make them less good art?

I think immediately about Larry Kramer's 1985 drama, "The Normal Heart," ripped raw from the disgraceful indifference to a mysterious disease destroying gay men. That production, which opened at the Public, was so current that death statistics were constantly updated on the walls. At the time, it seemed to me to be a shock to the system, an alarm siren, a blunt instrument to bludgeon institutional indifference from Ed Koch to Ronald Reagan.

But what seemed then like a sectarian story line about factions within the gay community has, with time and horror, taken on the gripping moral heft of a monument by Arthur Miller. The 2011 Broadway revival proved this to be a landmark drama, both a time capsule of the early plague years and a lean, emotionally devastating piece of intimate theater from the fiercest canary in the AIDS mine.

Who could have guessed that London's National Theatre would name this urgent history lesson one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century? Or that HBO would now be making a movie version, directed by Ryan Murphy, with a star-encrusted cast including, for starters, Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Groff, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts and Alec Baldwin?

Nelson's thoughts about disposable theater also made me wonder how "Falsettos" would strike audiences today. In 1990, composer-lyricist William Finn and author-director James Lapine gave us "Falsettoland," the first -- and surely the most devastating and disarming AIDS tragicomedy -- complete with singing and dancing. It was the sequel to "March of the Falsettos," which a decade earlier had shocked Off-Broadway with a main character who leaves his wife and son for a man named Whizzer -- and everyone stayed family.

Both pieces were combined on Broadway in 1992 as "Falsettos" and Finn's score won a Tony. But would all that wrenching conflict just seem quaint today? Maybe someone daring will revive it. I'd happily see it again.

If some plays are too close to their time to be meaningful in the future, I'm thinking that some plays are too close to their time, period.

Is it possible that "Domesticated," Bruce Norris' tragicomedy about a political couple and a sex scandal, will have even more of an impact when audiences get some distance from the ones we know too well? It is hard to imagine a production better than the one now starring Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Goldblum at Lincoln Center Theater, but the crisis may very well deepen with time.

In the program for "Sweet and Sad," Nelson said he hopes these works "are plays about the need to talk, the need to listen and the need for theater." In his "Sorry" note, he added "the need to be in the same room together." And in "Regular Singing," he added a hope that these plays "are about the need to know, in small and even some bigger ways, that we are not alone."

There is nothing disposable about that.