Adapted for the stage by Sharr White from the eponymous 1992 memoir by photographer Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home uses wall-size projections of actual vintage stills, childhood home movies, and the decade of photographs he shot of his parents, then in their sixties, at their home in California in the 1980s, flying in for visits twice a month for days at a time. As in the book, the theatrical version, playing a limited world-premiere engagement at Broadway’s Studio 54, is done with the intention of revealing “the life beyond the frame,” and includes content from interviews Sultan recorded with his father Irving and mother Jean, and his own psychoanalyses of their personalities, along with scenes of the loud and combative family dynamics that resulted from his invasive “project,” while considering his expressed ideas about the essence and purpose of photography.
Directed by Bartlett Sher with a combination of humor and discord that contains little nuance, then shifts suddenly to sentimentality, the play intersperses metatheatrical breaks through the fourth wall between the interactions of the real-life characters, as they directly address the projectionist (with instructions about starting and freezing the movies and which photos to show) and the audience (with their personal interpretations of what they represent and their no-holds-barred comments on how they feel about the long-term project and one another).
There are also musings about what it means to be successful in America, the postwar fantasy of Westward migration from Brooklyn to California, and the sexual politics of the mid-century that continue with the older generation, all of which Larry finds represented in his photographs. It’s a lot of talk, sometimes redundant, that negates Frederick R. Barnard’s oft-repeated 1921 observation that “A picture is worth a thousand words,” here using thousands, frequently at a high decibel level, to explain each image – some candid but many intentionally posed or staged – and telling us how we should see it, rather than letting us take from it what we will, in keeping with the ancient Greek maxim of “the eye of the beholder.”
An all-star cast of three delivers the familial dysfunction and intended laughs, and, in the end, despite their very vocal differences of opinion, makes an abrupt emotional shift to the recognition of their love and impending mortality. Danny Burstein as Larry is determined and contemplative, forging ahead, reflecting on his art, and ignoring the impassioned opposition of his father, who nonetheless picks him up and drops him off at the airport each time. Nathan Lane captures the cantankerous attitude of Irv – a self-made man and former Vice President at Schick Razors – turning every argument into a running joke with his spot-on inflections, signature timing, and masterful physical comedy (most notably in his aging limp and stiff posing for the camera). And Zoё Wanamaker as Jean (a successful real estate agent, whose job Irv refers to as a “hobby”) initially tries to keep the peace between the men, then becomes increasingly argumentative (and forgetful, in an extended scene of trying to remember where she put things), as she and Irv simultaneously talk over each other in heated exchanges and she reveals some long-held secrets in their marriage that hint at a dramatic arc very late in the play, which isn’t further developed.
Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, and hair, wig, and make-up design by Tommy Kurzman, are most successful in recreating the look of Jean, based on the original photos of her. Michael Yeargan’s set captures the taste of the era in California (as seen in pictures of the Sultans’ real house) and leaves a lot of room for the monumental projections of Larry’s images that cover the entire back wall (projection design by Ben Pearcy at 59 Productions) but also allows for too much space between the furnishings, resulting in a lack of intimacy on the large Broadway stage.
As with all art, the beauty and appeal of Pictures from Home are in the eye of the beholder; many on the date I attended were wildly laughing and applauding.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.