In the first seven parts of Richard Nelson’s “Rhinebeck Panorama,” two groups of normal people are examined over multiple hours with apparently meaningless details adding up to incredibly rich portraits of two families in upstate New York. The four Apple family plays and the three Gabriel family plays are each rooted in a significant contemporary event or the anniversary of a historical moment, and the conversations about work and life weave in and around these broader subjects, touching them lightly, but ultimately spending the majority of time focused on the relationships between characters who have known each other for decades. Marked by Nelson’s directorial style of mismatched furniture and foodstuff and the conspiratorial acting that never moves above a whisper, Nelson has carved out a distinct niche of performance style that makes each of his plays a unique theatrical event. Even his last work, llyria, had similar markers, although that play took place in New York City and not Rhinebeck.
The eighth entry in the Panorama, The Michaels, is the first play about a dying modern dance choreographer and her family, former dancers, and partner who gather in her kitchen to celebrate her legacy. It has all the hallmarks and a couple of the same actors, but it doesn’t feel as rich or layered as the plays that came before it. Rose Michael’s kitchen doesn’t feel as inviting and the relationships don’t feel as lived-in.
This has nothing to do with the brilliant performance of Brenda Wehle at the play’s center. Wehle is all tight-jawed stoicism in the face of terminal illness, making the best of it, but not suffering the pity of anyone around her. Her frame carries the aftereffects of decades of throwing herself on stage floors and wildly carving her arms through the air. Wehle’s whole-souled performance is the kind of believable, breathable character Nelson (and company) created so vividly in the former plays.
Maryann Plunkett, a Nelson veteran, gives another of these performances, especially later on. As Kate Harris, Rose’s new girlfriend and, subsequently, caretaker, Plunkett quietly makes the dinner and urges everyone to get comfortable and let her do all the work (much as Barbara Apple – another Plunkett character – did in the first four plays). Kate makes a revelation at the end of the play that is both the logical, only choice and a heartbreaking one for everyone involved. Plunkett walks that line with extraordinary sensitivity and speaks from Kate’s heart as if it lives with her tongue in her mouth.
When the play circles Rose and Kate’s very new, but very serious relationship – they’ve only known each other for two months – it crackles with the kind of dialogue that makes Nelson’s plays captivating. It loses this steam, however, with all of the tertiary characters. Nelson stalwart, Jay O. Sanders, plays Rose’s ex-husband, David Michael. They’ve been divorced for a long time, but are very good friends. He’s remarried to Sally (Rita Wolf), a former dancer in Rose’s company. David and Rose’s daughter (Charlotte Bydwell) and her cousin (Matilda Sakamoto) recreate some of the dances that made Rose famous (the actual choreography is by Dan Wagoner). And then there’s Irenie, a colleague of Sally and Rose’s from the company, played with a smile and a gentle touch by Haviland Morris. None of these people have much to do, especially Irenie. They have very little bearing on the Rose/Kate relationship and spend so much of the play remember-when-ing in a way that Nelson managed to avoid in the earlier plays. We don’t learn enough about these five other characters to care about what they think or feel or want. It’s hard for the room to feel as palpably populated by actual people when there are five shells of characters taking any opportunity to say “Merce Cunningham” instead of anything about themselves.
The Richard Nelson Whisper Acting is also present here, but where someone like Plunkett thrives in this muted, unforced style of speaking, so many of the other actors seem constrained by it, like Nelson has given them the note to be quieter but it is fighting against their actor’s impulse to project. Even Sanders, someone who basically invented Nelson-acting, kicks off the play telling a story that feels like he is taking pains to make each word as quiet as possible. But it’s a funny story he’s telling and comedy is rarely quiet. Eventually they all find a groove, but it never feels as natural as it has in the past.
Even Rose’s kitchen feels curiously blank. Each of the Rhinebeck plays begins with the characters moving clumps of furniture into organization, unrolling rugs and laying out props. When the action is completed in The Michaels, though, it feels like there’s more work to be done. Usually, these spaces feel so real, like the characters actually spend their time in them. Here, the few items combine to feel like rehearsal furniture, like the play isn’t ready and we’re there too soon. The scenic design, by Jason Ardizzone-West, contributes to the conversations that then happen in this space; there’s a lack of flow, a lack of connection in the dialogue that mirrors the disconnectedness of the physical environment.
A note at the end of the script calls this the first of two plays about The Michaels, so perhaps we’ll learn more about these people when we can spend more time with them. As it stands now, this play feels like an imitation of the seven plays before it. These characters are impressions of the Apples and Gabriels without their fullness and depth. The next play will have a lot of groundwork to cover to get them into the same league.