BWW Reviews: THE APPLE FAMILY PLAYS, An Intelligent Reflection of Art and Life

By: Nov. 26, 2013
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Many would hesitate at the thought of spending an entire day at the theater. Yet Studio Theatre's production of The Apple Family Plays leaves you begging for more at the end. The Apple Family Plays not only meets the standard of great theater, but exceeds it in every way with this not-to-be-missed theatrical event. If art is a reflection of life, then The Apple Family Plays at Studio Theatre are intelligent reflections of the ongoing civic debates in society and foreshadow the likely situations, characters and conversations many of us will encounter.

The Apple Family Plays consist of two plays - That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad - both being performed in repertory at Studio Theatre. Using the same set and involving the same characters, the plays seek to explore two of the most consequential events of the 21st century so far: the election of Barack Obama and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Even though this could be tricky territory, playwright Richard Nelson's wonderful script astutely avoids taking sides and serves to give voice to a generation of Americans consumed by terrorism and political upheaval.

Nelson understands family dynamics and that's on full display throughout the entire Apply Family series. With both pieces he uses the natural tension inherit in family gatherings, subtly building it and, like most family dinners, detonating it towards the end of the meal. It's a smart decision, allowing the audience to get acquainted with the Apple family while also adding an element of emotional realism to the piece.

That Hopey Changey Thing takes place over dinner on the evening of the 2010 midterm elections in the dining room of Apple family sister Barbara (Sarah Marshall) who lives in Rhinebeck, New York. On this night she is joined by her sisters, Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti) and Jane (Kimberly Schraf), Jane's much younger actor-boyfriend Tim (Jeremy Webb), Uncle Benjamin (Ted van Griethuysen) who lives with her and suffers from amnesia, and brother Richard (Rick Foucheux) who has one of the funniest four-word opening lines of any play.

The political discussion in That Hopey Changey Thing is not a mock-political debate, but a reflection of the political attitudes of our society. The inherently intimate nature of family discussions allows That Hopey Changey Thing to put aside political correctness, thereby sparing no politician or party of their scorn. Additionally, Nelson makes each character a representation of the various political movements. We see the impassioned Obama supporter represented in Marian; the north versus south geographical debate embodied by Tim and Jane; the disillusioned public servant thru Richard; the peacemaker in Barbara and most profoundly, the political philosopher in Benjamin.

In fact, Benjamin's role is probably the greatest surprise of Nelson's script. Van Griethuysen gives an expertly nuanced performance as Ben. He does a great job portraying amnesia, fading in and out of conversation as his memory allows. Additionally, he never lets the audience forget that Ben was a stage actor and his presence can certainly be felt in both plays.

When he's asked by Tim what freedom means in relation to acting, his answer is the great revelation of The Apple Family Plays. "Expression without judgment," he declares! That Hopey Changey Thing does not try to answer the political questions of our time, nor should it. With that answer, That Hopey Changey Thing reminds us of the freeing feeling of expression.

The freedom of expression continues to be explored in the second of The Apple Family Plays, Sweet and Sad which is set 10 months later on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. On this day, the family is once again together to attend a community memorial service. Just like politics did in That Hopey Changey Thing, death and grief become the subtext of Sweet and Sad.

Immediately upon the start of the play we recognize that the Apple family has changed. Sure they're almost a year older, but someone in the family has experienced a tragic loss and it's that loss that allows them to explore our societal reactions to death on both a macro and micro level. Where That Hopey Changey Thing had a very witty sense of humor, Sweet and Sad takes a more appropriate somber tone. Once again, the family dynamic provides the characters with a safe outlet to express their views, raising pointed questions about how we memorialize September 11th.

It's hard to watch Sweet and Sad and not have your heart feel for Pierotti's Marian. She's able to use Sweet and Sad to explore grief not only through using words, but also through nonverbal communication. Watching her physical performance is a reminder that acting is not just words, but actions as well.

While other members of the Apple family are more vocal, Marhsall's Barbara really drives The Apple Family Plays. She fully understands that the play is taking place in her home, and uses this to command the action forward. This is particularly clear in Sweet and Sad when we see her wander the perimeter of the stage and realize that she's not listening to events as much as she is reliving them.

Foucheuyx uses a great physicality to inform his Richard. At one moment we see a man worn down by the political events of the last decade, and the next, puffed up, ready to fight for his family. In between, we see a man simply trying to process it all.

Schraf and Webb make a very believable couple as Jane and Tim. Schraf has a way of using her mouth and eyes to make you really wonder if Jane is telling it straight. And Webb gives great warmth to the evening with the way he looks at Van Griethuysen's Ben, as if an awe of a fellow actor.

Watching the cast is a master class in acting. Part of what makes The Apple Family Plays so enjoyable is seeing each character's journey through the performances of very skilled actors. All give exceptional performances and this is ensemble acting at its pinnacle.

Serge Seiden's direction is delicate, precise and perfect. Much thought has been given as to how this family interacts during a meal and the tone of their movements around this one room as the meal lingers on. After a point is made in both plays, a piano-like chord is heard, and then each character will make small movements by either moving across the room, changing their standing or sitting position etc. This is used to mark the passage of time, and Seiden uses this to great effect by showing each meal's progress from place-setting to dessert.

Seiden is aided in this by Daniel Maclean Wagner's lighting design. Consistency best describes his design, as it doesn't really change much throughout the plays except for those brief moments. When the piano chord is held, the lights momentarily dim as the actors ever so slightly change the position. By only dimming the lights, and not completely darkening the theater, it once again highlights the passage of time.

Set Designer Debra Booth's simple dining room helps the piece retain focus. For a majority of both plays the set consists of a large dining room table, card table and chairs scattered around the room with audience surrounding the stage. Behind the table is a black wall with one door in the center that leads to the kitchen. From the audience's perspective we can see sections of the kitchen through the door. It seeks to remind us that yes, outside of this one room is a house, in a community in upstate New York. But as far as The Apple Family Plays are concerned, this is the center of the universe.

Studio Theatre is showing That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad in repertory. And while both pieces can stand alone, one would be best served seeing them in chronological order. Not to mention, these shows make for a fantastic day at the theater. While Americans continue to struggle with the meaning of September 11th and our political system, there's a comfort in watching the Apple Family struggle with these same issues.

Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission for That Hopey Changey Thing and 110 minutes with no intermission for Sweet and Sad. Both are scheduled to play thru December 29th at Studio Theatre 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. To purchase tickets and for specific performance dates of each show, please call 202-332-3300 or purchase them online.

Graphic: (L-R) Ted van Griethuysen, Elizabeth Pierotti, Sarah Marshall, Kimberly Schraf, and Rick Foucheux in That Hopey Changey Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff