Why do we always remember the arguments? If there’s a family spat at the Thanksgiving table, it’ll be remembered long after grandma’s gravy recipe is lost to the ages.
Sharr White’s new play Pictures From Home drives that simple truth all the way home, and then makes so many return trips you imagine the ride could be made blindfolded. Given a loving production, the play opens tonight at Broadway’s Studio 54, with a trio of Broadway’s best – Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoё Wanamaker – who couldn’t be more devoted to the sentimental memory play if it was about their own families. And Pictures From Home frequently pierces through its own nostalgia with an observation clear and crisp as a brand new Polaroid. Lots and lots of Polaroids.
Based on the unlikely source of photographer Larry Sultan’s wonderful 1992 photo book of the same title, which included then-new images along with aging scrapbook family photos, the biographical memory play, directed by Bartlett Sher, chronicles the multi-year endeavor in which Larry (played by Burstein) flies from his home in San Francisco to snap shots of his Los Angeleno parents, dad Irving (Lane) and mom Jean (Wanamaker), as they go about the daily business of living.
Set primarily during the 1980s, when Larry has already (and very frequently) been pointing the camera at mom and dad for eight years, Pictures From Home sets its focus (at least initially) on the father-son relationship, prickly even without the annoyance of the camera’s click click click. Larry won’t stop until he makes a sort of breakthrough, getting past lifetimes of surface images and public faces to reveal the real man and woman who gave him life.
The project especially grates on the retired Irving, who at first mostly objects to the repetitive nature of the project but gradually comes out with what’s really bugging him: Larry’s search for an authentic Irving is a not-so-subtle doubting, and even rebuking, of the Irving who built a successful (and lucrative) career as a corporate go-getter. That Irving, Larry believes, is and always was a front, shallow and artificial as the 8×10 corporate headshot that Irving prefers to Larry’s warts-and-wrinkles-and-all realism.
As Larry’s photographs are projected (essentially by an unseen assistant character) onto a large wall of the family’s mid-century modern ranch home (designed with an appealing minimalism by Michael Yeargan, the details fleshed out by Ben Pearcy/59 Productions’ projection designs), the characters frequently break the fourth wall to make their cases directly to the audience. And each character attempts to deconstruct whatever photo is displayed (the photos are taken directly from Sultan’s book, so feature his real parents), with Irving almost sickened by the age and sometimes unpleasant disposition that bleeds through. Those, of course, are just the sort of images Larry is going for.
As the father and son bicker and argue over the issue, mom Jean mostly plays peacekeeper, at least initially. A close-up photo of herself, taken when she was busy and on her way to the real estate job that has made her the couple’s de facto breadwinner, tells a truth that she’s struggled to keep hidden from Irving: Unlike the men of the family, she has absorbed a sense of guilt over her very successful career, a guilt reinforced over the year’s by Irving: He’s called her top-dollar career a hobby once too often.
While the intimate and honest views of a family’s inner workings can’t help but touch our hearts at steadily paced moments, Pictures From Home is too blunt in its characterizations, with father and son especially, repeating their arguments and complaints with unstoppable frequency. Lane has the toughest job here, having to convince the audience that we don’t know who he really is, that we haven’t seen a version of this guy displayed and portrayed in everything from An American Family to (at its most extreme) Succession. The challenge proves a bit too tough even for the indefatigable and always appealing Lane, whose left to fill the holes with high-volume point-making.
By the play’s end, we can’t help but feeling sympathy for all concerned, characters and actors, but, sad to say, it’s the arguments we’ll remember.
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