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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Richard Nelson’s long ‘Gabriels’ campaign nears election-night end

Meg Gibson and Maryann Plunkett in the second

Meg Gibson and Maryann Plunkett in the second play of Richard Nelson's trilogy about the Gabriels, "What Did You Expect?" Credit: Joan Marcus

You think you’re stressed out from the craziness and meanness of the coming election? You may even be anxious from reading articles about how stressed Americans are feeling about the wild swings of emotions, scandals and polls in a contest that, either way, is likely to cause upheaval that no one can predict.

If this is any comfort, at least you are not rehearsing and tinkering with an election night play that will open at the Public Theater before the polls close Tuesday.

Richard Nelson is. And from the sound of his voice on the phone, the Tony-winning playwright is freaking out about the political roller coaster less than most people you probably know. He even uses the word “exciting” to anticipate the moment — at 4:30 p.m. — when he will have to stop adding and/or taking away things in the script that, as he puts it, “don’t fit the zeitgeist.” His deadline has been set by the press department, which needs to copy the script to give to critics before the 7:30 curtain.

At least the actors, their audience and, most uncannily, their characters will be spared those agonizing hours of speculation and pontification before the polls close on the West Coast. The play runs an hour and 45 minutes, which should leave us time to get to wherever we choose to share news along with the rest of the world. When the play continues over the rest of the run, of course, the audience will know the outcome. The Gabriels, frozen in the hours before it, will never know.

Such is the fascinating conceit of “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” Nelson’s seriously wonderful trilogy that has been quietly unrolling alongside the news since the first part, “Hungry,” opened on the day it was set, a few days after Super Tuesday. “What Did You Expect?,” our middle visit with the same six Gabriels in their homey family kitchen in Rhinebeck, New York, opened in September to capture both the unmoored feeling of the country and rocky realities in these very specific lives.

So the people who return for the finale — titled “Women of a Certain Age” — already know and like these characters. We look forward to spending time with them, care about the unexpected bad news about the mortgage and worry about whether the matriarch — played with elegant dignity and massive poignancy by the masterly Roberta Maxwell — can afford the fancy retirement home.

As Nelson insists to me and in his author’s note in the program, these are not just plays about the election. Instead, it is “a year in the lives of these characters, a year which reveals their hopes and losses, their fears and resiliency, and how these entwine with a political season few of us ever imagined.” The plays are intimate, far-reaching and lively conversations among loved ones, in a single room where we share a time capsule of up-to-the-minute emotions and sensibilities. His goal, as he describes in the program, is to “weave together an unruly and contentious national event with the small — and large — events of private life.”

Such is the understated brilliance of Nelson’s extraordinary project. It began, really, in 2010 — the night of the midterm elections — with the beginning of a three-year tetralogy about a different family, the Apples, who live around the corner in a more upscale house in the historic Hudson Valley town where Nelson resides with his family. This was “The Apple Family: Scenes From Life in the Country,” which, like the Gabriels’ ensemble, included the irreplaceable actors Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders. Despite the specificity of time and such very-American details as an opening reference to Andrew M. Cuomo, the four plays were also celebrated in other countries. “As a writer,” says Nelson, “I learned that the more specific you are, the more universal.” (Thanks to PBS, the Apple cycle is beautifully preserved on tape.)

It was more than two years ago that Nelson approached Oskar Eustis, the Public’s unstoppably adventurous artistic director, with a plan to condense the next cycle into what turned out to be a wildly unpredictable election year. “I would have had to be a genius or a crazy person to have predicted it,” he told me months ago, before the madness had even reached the frenzy we know today.

It is appealing to picture Nelson and his exquisitely humane and dedicated actors in frantic total rewrites every time another leak or outrage hits the air. But of course, the play is basically finished. Up to the final moment, however, he expects to continue to make changes. “It might just be two or three lines that might relate to the weather that day,” he suggests. In “What Did You Expect?,” talk was so up to the minute that it included the sight of Donald Trump getting his hair mussed by Jimmy Fallon the previous night.

At least as remarkable is that the final title, “Women of a Certain Age,” existed long before Hillary Clinton got the nomination. What if Bernie Sanders was running now instead? “Certainly he would have chosen a woman vice president,” insists Nelson, resisting being considered a prophet. “When I started, it was always possible that someone like Elizabeth Warren would run as well.”

In fact, Nelson knew from the start of the project that five of his six characters would be women, ages 50 to 60, plus the oldest Gabriel. “Looking at the landscape of the election, I knew that women would certainly figure through the year,” he says. “It was a given that a woman would be a significant player.”

Whatever the results on election night, it is a given that the entire cycle will be performed in marathon repertory on Dec. 10, 11, 14, 17 and 18. It’s also certain that Washington will get to see the marathon in January, close to inauguration week.

I ask whether both cycles, all four about the Apples, three about the Gabriels, might someday be performed as a group. At first he denies the very idea of a 12-play event, sighing “Oh my God, I’m so tired. The thought made my knees buckle.” But then he thinks for a moment and adds, with perhaps the little inkling of excitement, “It would be a history of almost a decade.”

He just may be quietly building a masterwork.

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