There’s a certain ersatz style to the two stars of Pictures from Home by Sharr White, now playing on Broadway. Not Zoë Wanamaker and Nathan Lane, who play Irving and Jean Sultan, but the real Irving and Jean, whom we see magnified in photographs on the backdrop (projection design by 59 Productions). The images are the originals from their son Larry Sultan’s iconic 1992 book Pictures from Home. Their charisma floods the stage as their tanned, lived-in faces gaze out at the audience; they look like epitomes of the American dream even when they are clearly in mid-argument. At times it’s hard to look away from the photographs and concentrate on the play, which explores how the book came together over a decade of observation, interviews, and photography by Irving and Jean’s son. But photographs and stage play combine to deliver a powerful and sensitive story of family and self-image that most of us will relate to.
Fictionalized memoir inherently raises questions of whose truth we are witnessing, and here it’s sometimes hard to untangle fact from interpretation. In the book, Larry Sultan was clear about his premise for the project: “Unaware of deeper impulses, I convinced myself that I wanted to show what happened when, as I interpreted my father’s fate, corporations discard their no-longer-young employees, and how the resulting frustrations and feelings of powerlessness find their way into family relations.” But the stage Larry seems more aware of those deeper impulses and apparently sets out to create a prurient portrait of his parents’ marriage. This Larry, as played by Danny Burstein, seems confused about his own career, resentful, and just a little condescending to his father; while the photos convey a depth of empathy, stage Larry seems a little closer to exploitative. It’s also curious that while Wanamaker and Lane are dressed and coiffed to closely resemble their real-life characters (costumes by Jennifer Moeller and wigs, hair, and make-up by Tommy Kurzman), Burstein bears little resemblance to the real Larry. But as Irving says, “Whose truth is it? It’s your picture but my image.”
The action all takes place inside the couple’s California home, with furnishings, in Michael Yeargan’s set design, closely resembling those glimpsed in the photographs. The back wall of the living room doubles as the projection screen, which makes it an odd decision to include an A/C vent in the middle of the wall. Verisimilitude aside, it mars the visual experience provided by the projections.
As the photography project progresses, Irving accuses his son of “picking” at his parents. Much of the dialogue is fractious and played by Lane in particular, under Bartlett Sher’s direction, as a full-throttle argument. But there is also humor, as when Larry directs his father to revisit a talk he gave on salesmanship. Every time Larry moves in to shoot an image, Irving assumes a “hero” pose, and Lane’s preening posture, with his nose slightly aloft, brings the house down every time. We hear in detail about Irving’s orphan childhood and his career as a razor blade salesman. His early success afforded the family a semblance of the American dream in California, but it turns out that Larry’s mother is the real economic powerhouse, still working as a successful real estate agent into her seventies. Larry suggests that she has sublimated her own success to allow Irving to strut around as if he is still a master of the universe. Wanamaker is convincing in the role of self-effacing but indomitable spouse, but we are given no insight into her background before her marriage. Intentionally or not, her character emerges as the less significant of the two and leaves you wanting to know more.
As Larry’s book is published, the parents enjoy a momentary celebrity. It’s interesting to contrast the documentation of these lives with the oversharing culture of our times, where the intimate photos might just become so much click bait and would be unlikely to take a decade to compile. As Larry spends extended time with his parents, he feels a pang of remorse for missing out on his own son’s childhood. While that’s regrettable, both the book and the play are timeless vignettes of the power of family influence.