Review Roundup: Richard Nelson's WHAT DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT? Conversations on Zoom
Just last night, The Public Theater presented the world premiere of WHAT DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT? Conversations on Zoom, a new play in the Rhinebeck Panorama, written and directed by Tony Award winner Richard Nelson. Commissioned by The Public Theater and written by Nelson from his home in Rhinebeck, New York, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this unique theatrical experience was performed as a benefit for The Public Theater.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT? will feature the return of the original Apple Family performing from their homes including Jon DeVries (Benjamin), Stephen Kunken (Tim), Sally Murphy (Jane), Maryann Plunkett (Barbara), Laila Robins (Marian), and Jay O. Sanders (Richard).
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Ben Brantley, New York Times: Many of the subjects have a ripe familiarity. The matinee-idol ascension of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for whom Richard (a lawyer) works, is a topic. Others are closer to home, including the newly fraught act of grocery shopping; the difficulties of conducting a job remotely; the worries and resentment of younger relatives who feel their adult lives have been blighted just as they were beginning; and, most soberingly, the loss of friends to the virus. (In a typical Nelsonian blurring of fictive and real worlds, Tim speaks heartbreakingly of Mark Blum, the invaluable New York actor who died in March.) But the main thing here is that these people are in conversation, which is in itself an assertion of human life, of community, of our ability to reciprocally confirm one another's identities. Some of what the Apples discuss here has no obvious immediate relevance. Barbara - deploying a recent classroom exercise inspired by "The Decameron," Boccaccio's 14th-century account of refugees from a plague swapping stories to pass the time - has everyone tell a tale of their own.
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: Unlike the previous Rhinebeck plays, where conversation accompanies activity, providing a more leisurely pace, the talk is the uninterrupted focus here. And though the hour-long play seems more briskly performed by comparison, the beautiful naturalism accomplished by Nelson and his accomplished ensemble remains. Plunkett, in particular, thrives in this subtle, realistic realm. When THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING first opened, Nelson referred to it as a "disposable" play, written quickly and heavily steeped in the national conversation of its time. Now, when surveying American theatre a fifth of the way through this century, his "Rhinebeck Panorama" seems indispensable.
Frank Rizzo, Variety: Nelson's deeply drawn characters and the quiet, delicate naturalism of the performances - directed by Nelson - are ideal for this up-close and personal-screen format as they reveal confidences, share family news, tell bad jokes, and talk about the dailiness of their much-reduced lives in direct discourse. Quartered on screen, there are few places to hide - other than to fetch a drink, find a cell phone or clear a meal. These characters are both actors and audience at once, with little stage distraction now as they peer intently into their screens, looking for clues, cracks, gestures and tells to know what everyone is really thinking and how each is really doing. Their need for connection is palpable.
Thom Geier, The Wrap: Nelson's brood takes great pleasure in storytelling, and Barbara prompts the siblings to share their own yarns while recalling how the 14th-century classic "The Decameron" was composed during the Black Death pandemic to distract a population stuck in quarantine. And the Apples spin some wonderful, discursive yarns - while also fretting about contemporary concerns like "senior hours" at grocery stores, the death of Broadway actor Mark Blum and even the future of live theater. ("The first cough from the audience and who's listening to the play?" Richard wonders aloud.)
Tim Teeman, Daily Beast: Despite all the words spoken in the preceding hour, the truly jolting moments in this delicate play happen in silence, not just there at the end but in all the expressions of the characters as other characters talk. We see all the flashes of worry, the calling-bullshit eyebrow-raises, the minds wandering, jokes, impatience, confusion, and loving indulgence. By letting us share this tender evening with the Apples, Nelson reveals how a play on Zoom can not only work as a concept, but be just as intimate and revelatory as a play on stage.
David Cote, Observer: I started this review pooh-poohing the idea of success, but there have been damned entertaining experiments since we all became techno hermits. Composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Rob Handel found quirky, operatic dazzle in the collective unconscious of an absurdist Zoom meeting. The obscenely watchable Michael Urie held about 70,000 people spellbound for his reprise of Jonathan Tolins solo comedy, Buyer and Cellar. Stephen Sondheim's soul-restoring 90th birthday celebration, which climaxed with a "Ladies Who Lunch" cocktail Zoom with Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep, was worth a year of therapy. Each week, 24 Hour Plays churns out Viral Monologues, yummy theatrical finger food (full disclosure: I co-wrote one recently). And now Richard Nelson shows how a thoughtful script and superb actors can make an hour of online drama that is touching, funny, and deeply satisfying.