Pianos, heard but unseen, play central roles in family-centered dramas by distinctive American writers getting world premieres with crystalline, luminous productions. Richard Nelson’s What Did You Expect? at the Public Theater, and Nilo Cruz’s Bathing In Moonlight, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey couldn’t be less alike and yet both revolve, in their ways, around the instrument that comfortably symbolizes American aspiration and familyhood — much as it did in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on Broadway some 25 years ago.

Jay O.Sanders and Jane Hawley in "What Did You Expect?"
Jay O.Sanders and Jane Hawley in “What Did You Expect?”
Joan Marcus

Somewhat like Wilson’s great series 0f plays set in Pittsburgh, Richard Nelson has been creating a cycle of dramas rooted in place, here, the Hudson River hamlet of Rhinebeck, New York. The first three plays concerned the Apple family during the years leading up to the election of Barack Obama. What Did You Expect? is the second play about the Gabriel family, whose economic circumstances are more precarious than those of the Apples. All of the plays are set on the opening night of the work we’re seeing, and so here, again, the coming election of a new president looms large.

The Gabriels’ modest home is haunted by the spirit of Thomas, the recently deceased family partriarch, an author and translator of novels and plays. His widow Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, is hosting not only Thomas’ mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) but also Karin (Meg Gibson), the first of Thomas’ three wives. Also here to prepare a family dinner are Thomas’ sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an associate costume designer up from the city, and his brother George (Jay O. Sanders), a cabinet maker and piano teacher, and his wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), who works for a caterer.

George and Hannah are beneficiaries of the gentrification rapidly changing the region: The wealthy newcomers hire George to build their bookcases and teach their children to play the pianos that inevitably ornament their living rooms; Hannah’s employer services tony high-end fundraisers for the Clintons and the like. They’ve heard the area is being called “the new Hamptons.”

But times are challenging. Patricia’s care is expensive, college looms for children. The family members are gathered to go through Thomas’ papers to see what’s worth selling. George’s customers are fickle and he has put the piano in the livingroom, where a student can be heard practicing in the background, up for sale as well.  As the evening progresses, the talk turns from literature to clothes and, briefly but tellingly, to politics: The election, Hannah says, “just makes me feel dirty.” To which Mary responds, “Who are we? I think we should all be asking that. Is this really our country?”

Spoken in an urgent whisper by the incomparable Maryann Plunkett, the words resonate beyond their brief utterance. Plunkett, a Tony winner for Me And My Girl a long time ago, has anchored both the Apple and Gabriel family stories, giving life to the under-the-skin anxieties of the times while embodying the quiet but ineffable force of Nelson’s subtle dramaturgy. The playwright’s evanescent staging compels us to listen, and the storytelling thrums with power that, like the upright Bechstein that’s soon to disappear, is felt profoundly in its absence.

Set in the borrowed Miami home where a destitute Cuban-American family has taken up residence courtesy of the generous new parish priest, Nilo Cruz’s Bathing In Moonlight concerns another family in crisis. Martina (Priscilla Lopez) still mourns the death of her husband and the high life they once enjoyed in Havana. Her son Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez) has been away at medical school; at home she oversees her daughter Marcela (Hannia Guillen) and granddaughter Trini (Katty Velasquez).

Hannia Guillen and Raúl Méndez in "Bathing In Moonlight."
T. Charles Erickson

This family, too, once revolved, in its way, around a piano that Martina sold to finance Taviano’s studies. Now Marcela teaches at the church, where Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez) has fallen under her spell. Illicit love blooms, despite, or amidst, the priest’s anguished confessions to Bishop Andrew (Michael Rudko). Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Anna In The Tropics, has an invaluable collaborator in director Emily Mann, and the McCarter production is beautiful: Edward Pierce’s sets and lighting elegantly evoke the contrasts, real and symbolic, between a simple home and the surrounding tropical fauna, while Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes echo that duality, being at once simple and sensuous.

The tale of carnal knowledge has elements of a telenovela, to be sure, and Father Monroe (his mother named him after Marilyn) isn’t utterly convincing when he tells the Bishop that conversations about Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert swayed him as much as Marcela’s general hotness. (It also doesn’t hurt that Guillen and Mendez are great-looking.)

That doesn’t make the conflict any less timely (but did they really go bathing in the moonlight?) or central to the crisis facing the  church. If the Father’s and Marcela’s tortured journey into bed seems purple, there’s the truth that such intimacy often makes us squirm. The larger problem is that, like so many recent one-act plays, Bathing In Moonlight ends where it ought to begin. These lovers are worthy of our empathy and attention. We deserve to know where their life-shattering decision takes them. I bet there’s a piano in their future.