Lynn Hawley, left, Amy Warren, Maryann Plunkett and Meg Gibson...

Lynn Hawley, left, Amy Warren, Maryann Plunkett and Meg Gibson in "Hungry, Play One of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family," written and directed by Richard Nelson, running at the Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

The city has two very different kinds of theater right now that create new relationships between the audience, the actors and the playwright.


It is the Friday evening after Super Tuesday, which wouldn’t ordinarily matter to theatergoers. But this time it does. We have gathered at the Public Theater to see the initial performance of “Hungry,” the first of Richard Nelson’s trilogy called “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.”

And I can’t remember ever having felt such a peculiar happiness buzz throughout an audience in a theater before the opening of a new play. Yes, happiness is the word — anticipation and excitement, mixed with the unusual sense of contentment we can feel, if we’re lucky, in the neck of a purring cat.

You see, we trust this playwright, who also directs. We know the range of feelings he evoked with such insight and brutal tenderness at the Public from 2010 to 2013 with four extraordinary, deeply pleasurable evenings — each set on the day it opened. Those plays were about a different family, the Apples, who, we now know, live around the corner from the Gabriels in Rhinebeck, the historic Hudson Valley town where Nelson resides with his family.

I speak for more than myself when I say we’ve really missed the Apples, the six lively, loving, argumentative political progressives who gathered in the same homey dining-room with growing disillusionment through the years. We got to know them so intimately that when I saw one of that cycle’s actors, Jon DeVries, in the audience before the start of this one, I swear I almost greeted him like an old friend. And, trust me, I’m not that kind of naive.

But Nelson, the veteran Tony-winning playwright, had done something new to me with these four extremely naturalistic conversational works about the people we are, right now — or, rather, were right then on the night of the 2010 midterm elections, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the day of Obama’s second election, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.

He may just be quietly building a masterwork.

In plays ranging from 90 minutes to two nonstop hours of little more than overlapping family talk, he created people with whom we shared a time capsule of up-to-the-minute emotions and sensibilities. Then, after the final marathon weeks, the company took these very American people with their very timely concerns on a successful European tour, often with subtitles. The cycle was taped, excellently, by PBS.

But we knew that special moment could never be repeated. Until we just found out that it can.

“Hungry,” set in the family kitchen after the death of a novelist-playwright named Thomas, is at least the equal of the Apple plays. It even has two actors, the heartachingly nuanced Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders, from the first company (as different characters). If you count the tours, this means they’ve stayed with these plays for an astounding five years.

Was this always Nelson’s plan? Does he have an infinite number of Rhinebeck families to make real to us? “I’m 65,” he jokes in a recent phone interview. “So the number is going to be limited.”

When he wrote the first Apple play, “That Hopey Changey Thing,” he suggested in the program that it might be called a “disposable play — one so completely tied to a very specific time that its references and even concerns are certain to be soon out of date.”

As the plays proved to be indispensable, not disposable, he has amended that qualifier. He now sees that, paradoxically, “the greater the specificity” of his details, “the more universality” they appear to achieve.

The impact of this long-form, ever-accumulating work has even surprised him. He has had no models, but he has “grown it” from one to the next.

He approached Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, with the next cycle about two years ago. “I knew I didn’t want to go back to the Apples. To me, those four plays are a group with a beginning and an ending.” So he wrote three more about a different family, which will all be performed within this wildly unpredictable election year. He couldn’t have guessed what a year this would be. “I would have had to be a genius or a crazy person to have predicted it,” he says with a laugh.

Asked to explain the appeal, he says “I do think there is a hunger for very present relationships. When so many things are virtual, the theater in our time is the essence of a human being in a room speaking to other human beings at the present time in the same place.

The other two plays will be set in middle of the election in September and, finally, on election day. The Kennedy Center has booked all three to run in marathon in January, yes, during the inauguration. “The audience is living through the same things as the characters,” he says. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.” And neither do we.


On a recent Monday night, Nathan Lane was handed a manila envelope when he got onstage at the Westside Theatre. It was the script, which he had not seen before that moment.

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” a playful and serious play by an Iranian named Nassim Soleimanpour, was written in 2010 when he was not permitted to leave the country. As he speculated while writing, “who knows if I will even be alive” when or if the play is performed. It was “written to travel the world” when he could not.

As we learn in the program, the play had been performed over 200 times in 15 languages by the time he was permitted to travel in early 2013. He now lives in Berlin.

That’s the background, but hardly the explanation, for the strange brief journey — part political parable about animals in a circus with gang enforcers, part performance experiment with bits of audience participation. Lane, natty in a black suit and shirt, dispensed his obligations with befuddled dignity, exasperation and a great deal of wit, describing audience participation as somewhere “between incest and folk dancing.”

Since the actor is permitted to add his/her own comment to the script, but only by signaling with a raised hand, we are on this journey with the actor, the playwright and our fellow theatergoers. I imagine the moods will morph widely with the personality of the changing stars. Whoopi Goldberg did it last Monday. Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Mike Birbiglia, Wayne Brady, Cynthia Nixon and Martin Short are scheduled, with probable participation by Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming and David Hyde Pierce.

At one moment, the playwright has the actor read, “I really wish I had read this beforehand.” Lane, a splendid good sport, seemed to concur.

WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT, Mondays at the Westside Theatre. $79. 212-239-6200,

HUNGRY, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., through March 27. $60, 212-967-7555,