Donald Trump’s name is never uttered in Richard Nelson’s quietly incandescent Hungry, a play that feels as fresh as if it was written this morning — which, in fact, it actually was, at least in part. Hungry, which opened Friday evening at the Public Theater, also took place on Friday evening, 24 hours after the latest Republican candidates’ debate gifted us with words and images we can’t, sadly, unhear or unsee from men who would be President. “You watched that? How could you watch that?” Joyce Gabriel asks her gathered family, at once incredulous and numb from the political circus that will not end until it devours itself, or us. “It sort of feels to me like we’re all about to jump off some crazy high cliff, doesn’t it?”
Hungry is the first of three plays in The Gabriels: Election Year In The Life Of One Family. We have returned to the Hudson Valley hamlet of Rhinebeck, NY, the deceptively cozy setting of Nelson’s inspired quartet The Apple Family Plays. They began on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, took us through the election of Barack Obama and ended on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination — without ever leaving the kitchen and dining area of one house in that exurban outpost two hours north of Manhattan by car. (The four plays, performed by an ensemble of some of the best actors in the country, were beautifully presented last year on public television.)
Now Nelson returns — like Horton Foote to his fictional town of Harrison, TX and August Wilson to his real Pittsburgh, PA — to a different family. The Gabriels appear to be of more modest means than the Apples: The kitchen, with its mustard-yellow fridge and white enamel electric range, suggests an upgrade half a century in the past, and the wine that Mary Gabriel serves her family comes from the bargain bin at the local liquor store. Mary (the simmering Maryann Plunkett, a veteran of the Apple plays, whose facial features seem to verge on cracking but never do) is a retired doctor whose wheelchair-bound playwright and novelist husband Thomas died four months before the action of the play.
She cares for Thomas’ mother (the great Roberta Maxwell, in a near cameo at the end). On this day, Mary’s visited by Thomas’ brother George (Jay O. Sanders, also from the Apple plays) a piano teacher and cabinet maker, and his wife Hannah (Lynne Hawley), who earns a living working for a local caterer. Thomas’ sister Joyce (Amy Warren), a costume designer, is up from Brooklyn. Karin (Meg Gibson), the first of Thomas’ two ex-wives, also has come for the memorial service (and shows no particular urgency about leaving). Mary begins the play by kneading dough alone and will end it by following this chain of unsettled souls into the offstage dining room for the meal they have been preparing for the last 100 minutes.
Everything and nothing happens in those 100 minutes, as reminiscences of the departed Thomas are interwoven with observations about the creeping gentrification transforming the town as snotty weekenders multiply, bringing with them bad manners and the threat of entering local politics. The Roosevelt House museum has just been renovated, and the Gabriels just hate it. “What did they do to it?” Mary asks. “The museum? Everything,” Joyce answers. “You feel they are pushing things on you now. Like you can’t think for yourself anymore. I’m sure it’s what the Bush libraries are like. In Texas.” “I’ll bet you the Bush libraries are even worse, Joyce,” Hannah says, by way of offering comfort. There is an inconclusive discussion about the pros and cons of Hillary Clinton’s truthiness factor and the quality of her laugh.
But that’s about as overtly political as Nelson (Hyde Park On Hudson; the plays Two Shakespearean Actors, Some Americans Abroad) gets — and what makes these plays so rich: Their politics aren’t ornamental but emerge from people who find meaning in baking bread, building cabinets and playing Schumann on the piano. They have surprises; they’re immune to our prejudices. They live.
Nelson again directs his work with assurance and the cast is fine; the standouts are Plunkett and Sanders, married in real life and long-since exquisitely attuned to the smallest detail and nuance of these appealing characters. Hungry will be followed in September and November by the last two Gabriel family plays, which are certain to be more civilized and civilizing than the surreal events unfolding in the world around them.