After following the stories of three fictional Upstate white middle-class families – The Apples, The Gabriels, and The Michaels – for twelve years through a series of twelve plays and a pandemic-time shift from in-person to virtual performances, Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson’s popular Rhinebeck Panorama now comes to an end with What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad. “An Independent Theater” production of Hunter Theater Project, presented at the Frederick Loewe Theater on the Hunter College campus, the world-premiere finale of Nelson’s theatrical cycle leaves the Zoom format of the three most recent installments behind and returns to the live stage, just as The Michaels (the third family in the series, first seen in the Fall of 2019) leave their extended period of isolation behind for a post-pandemic trip to a dance festival and memorial exhibition in Angers, France. But can they really leave the past behind?
As with all the preceding Rhinebeck works, the lengthy, slow-paced, talk-driven piece is set in real time, on September 8 (the date of the show’s press opening), as the extended family, dressed in everyday casual clothes (costumes by Susan Hilferty) prepares and shares a meal, this time set in a rustic Angers kitchen (set design by Jason-Ardizzone-West), and the audience eavesdrops on the conversations and interactions, this time from a 74-seat in-the-round configuration in the Loewe’s black-box space.
The intimate seating is in accord with the intimacy of the script, as the figures take personal note of some current issues (most notably the life-altering virus and accusations of racism in “white theater”), consider their plans for the future (where will they move and what will they do?), and, predominantly, discuss their matriarch Rose – a former dancer, choreographer, and founding artistic director of her own eponymous dance company, stricken with terminal cancer but lost to COVID-19. Even for viewers who are not familiar with the preceding plays, the individual work is accessible as a stand-alone piece, in which the characters’ relationships and backgrounds are revealed in their exchanges, as is the personality of the deceased.
The reminiscences and reflections encompass the universal themes of the challenges and loss that we all face in life with controlled understated emotion and a perspective that would seem to be more resonant with an audience of a certain age. For those who prefer their dramas with some drama, or at least some action rather than inertia, you won’t find much of it here; nothing is decided, and, to answer the rhetorical titular query, there isn’t a lot that actually happens; it’s mostly just contemplated, with commonplace questions, a civility of tone, and an occasional philosophical observation (e.g., the longer you stay seated, the harder it is to get up; “life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. And it doesn’t matter . . . that it doesn’t last . . . Because we are ephemeral.”) It’s that signature ordinary humanity of Nelson’s writing that has kept fans of the series coming back for more.
There is a lively segment of the younger adult family members, 33-year-old daughter Lucy and 26-year-old niece May, giving the elders an extended preview of their upcoming modernist dances in the festival (based on the choreography of Dan Wagoner, with Gwyneth Jones serving as dance consultant). Though impressively executed by Charlotte Bydwell (as Lucy) and Matilda Sakamoto (May), as with the talking, it goes on longer than necessary to make the salient points of the contrast between generations, the joy of art and artistic expression to help get us through the most difficult of times, and to distract from the underlying mood of melancholy, reinforced by the sound of sighing between scenes (sound by Will Pickens), during blackouts of the overly bright lighting (by Jennifer Tipton).
Rhinebeck regular Maryann Plunkett turns in the most expressive characterization as Rose’s widow Kate, whose exhaustion, lack of appetite, decision to skip the night’s dance event, and long closing monologue embody her quiet permeating grief and sense of disorientation at the unbearable pain of losing a loved one. Jay O. Sanders as Rose’s ex-husband and Lucy’s father, Rita Wolf as his wife Sally, Haviland Morris as Irenie, and Yvonne Woods as Suzanne (all three of the women former principal dancers in Rose’s company, and Suzanne now a dance instructor and their hostess in Angers) round out the cast of family and friends there to settle the estate and debt, to attend the dance festival, and to show their support for each other. Under Nelson’s direction, they follow his aspiration of employing “sublimated human emotion” to create a sense of being not doing, and to leave the audience pondering, “What happened?”
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.
What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad plays through on Friday, October 8, 2021, at Hunter Theater Project, performing at the Frederick Loewe Theatre, 119 E. 68th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39.50 for general admission, $17.50 for student tickets with a valid ID, and a $5 discount on either with a Hunter ID), go online.
All audience members must provide proof of completed immunization via Excelsior Pass or Vax Card upon arrival; anyone who fails to present proof of immunization will not be admitted. Children under the age of twelve who are not yet vaccine eligible, and under the age of sixteen who have not yet been vaccinated, may be seated with a vaccinated adult if masked.