Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon

‘What Did You Expect?’ review: Play brings us closer to family

Amy Warren and Jay O. Sanders star as

Amy Warren and Jay O. Sanders star as a couple in "What Did You Expect?" Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “What Did You Expect?”

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $65; 212-967-7555;

BOTTOM LINE The second of Richard Nelson’s trilogy is quietly dazzling

Our uncanny, intimate relationship with the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, has burrowed to an even deeper level of closeness.

Has it really been nearly six months since we last spent a revealing two hours with these six people, meeting them as they gathered in the homey family kitchen to cook, to talk over one another as loved ones do and to gird themselves to release the ashes of Thomas, a novelist and playwright, who had, at different times, been married to two of the women around the table?

I’ll take a step back and explain. The Public Theater has opened the second play, titled “What Did You Expect?,” in Richard Nelson’s seriously wonderful trilogy, “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.” The first part, “Hungry,” opened and was set a few days after Super Tuesday. The last third of the cycle, “Women of a Certain Age,” opens and takes place on election night.

In other words, the playwright/director and his characters know as little as we know about the outcome of this upcoming presidential election. We do, however, have the feeling that we know them.

And this is the quiet brilliance of Nelson’s extraordinary project. It began, really, in 2010 with the first of what became a three-year tetralogy about a different family, the Apples, who live around the corner a more upscale house in the historic Hudson Valley town where Nelson resides with his family.

The Gabriel cycle is more tightly bound within a single year. And yet the style is just as leisurely and conversational, again creating an eerie verisimilitude from exquisitely understated acting, the complex psychology of honesty and characters with far-ranging interests and plenty to say.

This middle chapter is not tied to a specific political event. Thus, much like the rest of the country right now, the Gabriels seem unmoored and more than a little anxious.

Thomas’ widow—played by the heartachingly nuanced Maryann Plunkett—and his first wife (Meg Gibson, who needs to talk louder) are going through the dead man’s boxes of notebooks. Thomas’ brother (embodied with brutal tenderness by Jay O. Sanders) and his caterer wife (Lynn Hawley) have enlisted the others in preparing a picnic for the next day. The other sister (Amy Warren) has driven from the retirement home with the matriarch—played with elegant dignity and massive poignancy by the masterly Roberta Maxwell.

What seems like a routine night, however, unfolds with money catastrophes, class resentments and terrors both personal and national. Whatever happens on election night, it’s oddly comforting to know the Gabriels will be in it with us.

More Entertainment