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Review: Playwright Richard Nelson’s pandemic Zoom trilogy comes to a whispering end

Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Charlotte Bydwell and Stephen Kunken in play "Incidental Moments of the Day"
Clockwise from top left: Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Charlotte Bydwell and Stephen Kunken.
(Jason Ardizzone-West)

“Incidental Moments of the Day,” the final play in Richard Nelson’s Apple family pandemic trilogy, had its streaming premiere on Thursday. With no magic bullet for COVID-19 in sight, the series could be extended indefinitely. But something momentous is in the offing: an election that will determine the future of American democracy.

After Nov. 3 we’ll still be wearing masks, but the world won’t be the same. That sense of an inexorable watershed, of either falling through a trapdoor or rising from the rubble to rebuild, casts an unnerving shadow over this latest gathering on Zoom of the aging Apple siblings, who have been each other’s lifeline through the long ordeal of quarantine.

The two previous plays in the pandemic trilogy, “What Do We Need to Talk About?” and “And So We Come Forth,” have received nearly 100,000 views from more than 30 countries. “Incidental Moments of the Day,” which is available to stream for free on YouTube and theapplefamilyplays.com through Nov. 5, reunites what is perhaps the most honed theater ensemble working digitally today. (Those tuning into this premiere are encouraged to make a donation to Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation in the U.S. and Theatre Artists Fund in the UK.)

Like its predecessors, the play (written and directed by Nelson) holds the mirror up to a segment of America: the white, progressive, culturally engaged class that is drinking considerably more wine to cope with the isolation and disorientation of this annus horribilis, made worse by a political situation that has left more than half the country feeling “leaderless.”

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The mode of the Apple family plays, which began in 2010 when theater took place on stages before fidgety human beings, is affectionately Chekhovian. The country setting is the picturesque Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck, N.Y., but the locus of the action is the dinner table.

Chekhov’s often-quoted description of his dramatic procedure bears repeating: “Let the things that happen on stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up.”

In Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” a strange noise is heard while the characters, “lost in thought,” are whiling away the early evening outside. The stage directions disrupt the comfortable tedium with an uncanny ping: “Suddenly a distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, like the sound of a snapped string mournfully dying away.”

This sound effect has been described as the most difficult to pull off in all of drama, because what it’s meant to suggest is the passing of a way of life. I expected to hear such a sound in “Incidental Moments of the Day,” a play that invites us to eavesdrop on the Apple family’s dawning awareness of its own obsolescence in an America that has lost its bearings and seemingly turned against itself.

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In “What Do We Need to Talk About?” the characters gingerly dance around the specter of death raised by the pandemic. In the less successful “And So We Come Forth,” the subject of racial division sets the conversational self-scrutiny in motion. “Incidental Moments” encompasses both the existential and the political quagmires of contemporary pandemic life, offering not so much a culmination as a synthesis without resolution. Stamina and endurance, the preeminent Chekhovian values, are what’s needed here.

The search for meaning, challenged by loss and loneliness, has been further complicated by political polarization and the national reckoning on social injustice. Are the Apple siblings still permitted to speak about the problems roiling America? Can they acknowledge without guilt their private pain? Or have they had their say long enough?

Cast members Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy and Laila Robins in "Incidental Moments of the Day."
Clockwise from top left: Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy and Laila Robins.
(Jason Ardizzone-West)

Barbara (played by the superlative Maryann Plunkett, the anchor of this top-notch ensemble) has been rebuffed by former students, who see their caring English teacher as part of a systemic race problem. A neighbor asks, “I don’t think just being white makes me a racist. What do you think?” Barbara recognizes that her friend doesn’t so much need an answer as an opportunity to be heard without a rush to judgment. But not having an answer weighs heavily on her.

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Listening seems to be the lesson of “Incidental Moments.” Jane (Sally Murphy), emerging from a depression she has only recently been able to name, wants to take an online training course to become a crisis counselor. The skill that’s taught is a kind of receptive silence. Jane explains, “It’s the listening. That’s the training. Until you can hook them up with a professional. People need to talk....” The lesson isn’t lost on Nelson’s dramaturgy.

Tim (Stephen Kunken), Jane’s boyfriend who has moved temporarily to his childhood home in Amherst to take care of his teenage daughter, has been rereading his old college books, taking note of what he underlined in his collection of James Baldwin and what only now strikes him as profound and urgent. Inspired by a quote from South African playwright Athol Fugard, he shares it with a friend, who, unmoved, replies, “Fugard’s white.” Amid so many egregious disparities, even seemingly shared values can be a point of contention.

Nelson knits little history and big history, the quotidian and the consequential, in a way that is remarkably tactful but occasionally banal. The family comings and goings can seem soap opera-ish. Marian (Laila Robins), who has been lonely on her own even with her siblings nearby, makes only a brief appearance because, hallelujah, someone has asked her to dine with him outdoors and she’ll finally get to see his maskless face.

Scott, ‘the hot priest’ of ‘Fleabag,’ is magnificent as the wounded, weary son at the center of the Old Vic’s ‘Three Kings.’

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Richard (the inestimable Jay O. Sanders), who has stepped down from his position as a lawyer in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, has brought his sister Barbara to Albany to help him pack up his home. He has been quarantining with her but has now bought his own house in Rhinebeck, and their imminent separation is made a little more difficult when he introduces her to his girlfriend, Yvonne, an actress, whom we learn about through Barbara’s circular yet somehow pointed anecdotes.

Discussion about art helps the characters find value, if not coherence, in their daily lives. Tim mentions a flier for a London art show by Pierre Bonnard that he came across with the resonant subtitle “Incidental Moments of the Day.” The mere act of recording, part of Nelson’s and Bonnard’s project, registers the human desire to matter, not to fade away into nothingness, to leave a dignified trace.

Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), a former student of Barbara’s who is studying dance in France, Zooms in to offer a brief performance: a jaunty Dan Wagoner piece set to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” The characters take in this choreographic gift with expressions of transported gratitude. Art soothes, but the whiteness of the scene — white spectators watching a white artist — uncomfortably mirrors the narrowness of the Apple family universe.

Barbara, reading from a play it turned out her late uncle Benjamin performed in with Yvonne, speaks not only for all her siblings but also for her author in asking for the right to whisper: “But for God’s sake, don’t take that away, our last means of existing, allow us to say, ‘It’s hard for us to live.’ Even like this, in a whisper: ‘It’s hard for us to live.’”

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If Nelson continues the Apple chronicle after the election, let us hope that the existential whispering will become more inclusive. The voices, emanating from actors of supple humanity and grace, are always welcome. But at a time when our private worlds have grown smaller, a less insular spirit is called for.


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