In the program to his new play Sorry writer-director Richard Nelson writes, “It is my hope that these plays are about the need to talk, the need to listen, the need for theatre, and, I now add, the need to be in the same room together.”
The immediacy of theater sets it apart from the other storytelling- and performance-based arts like film and television. Every show is different, if only in minute ways. Every performance is ephemeral, specific to that moment in time and that audience. Once it’s over, it’s gone.
I have arrived late to the “Apple Family Plays.” Sorry (which The Public Theater has extended through this Sunday, Dec. 2) is the third of a fascinating four-play experiment-in-progress. Even without seeing the first two installments -- That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad -- (as I haven’t), I enthusiastically endorse catching this show before it actually closes. Each play presents a peak through a window into the lives of one family on a day of national significance. That important date matches the play’s official opening performance. In the case of Sorry, the audience spends just shy of two hours with the Apple siblings and their uncle Benjamin in the early morning of Election Day 2012, and therefore, the play opened on Nov. 6 as well.
I don’t know how true this was for the first two plays, but Nelson obviously continued changing the script of Sorry all the way up to opening night. At least a few audiences saw this PublicLab production in previews (although I believe it’s schedule was altered due to Hurricane Sandy), but the play just as obviously becomes frozen in time as of that opening night.
Nelson references a hurricane, and at first, I didn’t even make the connection to Sandy. How could he have included an event that had happened as the show was starting previews? And that second storm expected “tomorrow”? That would be the nor’easter that hit the city the day after the play opened … and froze in its current form.
Nelson has described this series as “disposable” plays. Based on Sorry, I understand that concept: It is completely rooted in its time and place. The play isn’t about Election Day, but the anticipation and anxiety that surround Election Day provide an essential framework for the show’s success.
I was originally supposed to see Sorry the night before the election on Nov. 5. Due to a conflict, I ultimately went to a performance on Nov. 16. The characters on stage express their anxiety about a possible Obama loss, but at my performance, the audience knew better.
I have found myself frequently considering how different my reaction might have been had I attended that Nov. 5 performance, when the electoral fears expressed by the characters would have seemed far more scary; or when Sandy was one week removed rather than three. I have wondered how an audience less familiar with New York politics and politicians might receive it. But most of all, I wondered how I might absorb Sorry if I saw it two or three years from now.
The differences could be minimal, for Sorry succeeds due to the relationships and conversations that develop almost in spite of Election Day, not because of it. Sorry presents a real-time situation rather than a true narrative. Apple siblings Richard, Jane and Marian have come together at their sister Barbara’s home in Rhinebeck, NY to help move their uncle Benjamin into an assisted living home in Beacon. Benjamin’s behavior has become more erratic and potentially threatening to Barbara, and yet she is the one who continues to have second thoughts about sending him away.
The difficulty of such a decision encountered differently by each sibling provides the spine for the show, but it’s the breadth of topics – from the intimate to impersonal – between and among these siblings that create the heart of the show. The Apples use all fill all the in-between spaces to avoid discussing the troubling, complicated and confusing situation they face. These interactions feel talky, theatrical and unrealistic until I take that metaphorical step back, stop and realize that these are precisely the form of conversations most people have at their own family gatherings.
The same ensemble cast has inhabited these roles in all three plays. Jay O. Sanders, J. Smith Cameron, Laila Robins, Jon DeVries and Maryann Plunkett all excel, and the closeness they’ve developed over three plays and three years translates into a naturalistic and comfortable familial dynamic.
These interactions exist without relation to Election Day 2012, as I’m certain the same must be true in the previous two plays which occur on Election Day 2010 (those Tea Party midterms!) and the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, respectively. But those backdrops have everything to do with the tone and emotional environment of the plays. So how different was seeing Sorry during one of its first performances immediately after Hurricane Sandy versus the day after the election; or, even 10 days after the election when all of us had already moved on to the Petraeus scandal, the fiscal cliff and troubles in the Middle East? I look forward to seeing the fourth (and final?) play next year, and I can’t wait to learn when it takes place. But I’d really love to witness an Apply Family Marathon, sometime in, say, late 2017, when the Obama administration has come to a close and we and the Apples have had some time apart. We can revisit these frozen Apples from a different context and point-of-view, for while the plays occur on specific dates, our perceptions of them certainly would change as time moves us further from the dates they occur. If Sorry is any indication on its own, the Apple Family plays are anything but “disposable.”