Kate, a woman in her late 60s, sits alone at a weather-beaten table, the clutter of a cauliflower lasagna mostly cleared and her dinner companions now out for the evening. Together, they have spent most of the last two hours talking about Rose, Kate’s wife, who six months earlier, while dying of ovarian cancer, was killed by Covid-19 instead.
After all that reminiscing, letter-reading and even dancing — Rose was a modern dance choreographer — what does Kate do?
Nothing. She sits, rises, walks slowly about the kitchen. And yet for a long minute or two of silence, you see on her face all the things she’s feeling, or really, all the things she is: grieving yet resolute, prickly yet proud. This is high-wire acting at its most subtly breathtaking, without even the wire of plot to hold it up.
If “What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” which opened Wednesday night at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theater, did nothing more than offer us another chance to see Maryann Plunkett do nothing, it would have been enough. We’ve been watching her do it for 11 years now, playing various characters in Richard Nelson’s 12-play series called the “Rhinebeck Panorama”; in this latest and last installment, she remains the same wonder as ever.
But it’s not just Plunkett. Jay O. Sanders, her husband, is another dramatic funambulist who has appeared in all 12 plays. Earlier in “What Happened?” he has a scene in which, as David Michael, he must persuade his daughter, Lucy, to sign papers allowing the heavily mortgaged house she grew up in to be sold. (David was once married to Rose; Lucy is their daughter.) This is about as much dramatic action as Nelson ever calls for, and the exchange is correspondingly tense. Yet the real drama happens only after Lucy has reluctantly agreed. Sanders walks away from the win and, nearly unnoticed, lifts a corner of his plaid shirt to wipe his eye.
Nelson, who has directed all 12 plays in the series, has always beelined toward such moments. His stripped-down dramaturgy asks us to care about character more than story, and to see the largest matters in the smallest details. The installments in the lives of his three Rhinebeck families — the Michaels and before them the Apples and the Gabriels, all of them neighbors in that town 100 miles north of New York City — have been, for fans, the best kind of soap opera, albeit one set only in kitchens and with all the hysterical climaxes lopped off. Even without cliffhangers, these extraordinary plays have left us scrambling with each new visit to recall how things stood “when last we left them,” and wondering what will happen next.
In “What Happened?,” though, as its title indicates, Nelson is more interested in the immediate past. When last we left the Michaels, in October 2019, Rose was ailing but still domineering, and Kate was hosting a dinner for her wife’s family members and colleagues. Aside from David and Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), these included two of Rose’s former dancers: David’s wife, Sally (Rita Wolf), and Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris). Also there was Rose’s niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto), like Lucy a young dancer learning and adapting some of Rose’s classic pieces for a valedictory performance.
That play was subtitled “Conversations During Difficult Times” but the difficulty of the coronavirus was yet to come. Two years later, in “What Happened?,” we find the same characters shuffled into new arrangements. Lucy and May are now in Angers, France, having been stranded by the pandemic at the home of another of Rose’s former dancers, Suzanne Raphael (Yvonne Woods). Though Lucy could not attend her mother’s funeral back in Rhinebeck earlier in the year, the lifting of some restrictions has allowed the rest of the group to fly to France to attend a conference about Rose’s work at a modern dance center there.
Confusing as it may feel to enter such a complex set of relationships so abruptly — the play begins with David saying, “One day Kate got your mom talking” — the cast’s clarity and patience soon pay off. Watching them assemble the story in small memories, like a jigsaw puzzle of the past, I was never less than engaged. For some theatergoers, though, Nelson’s extreme discursiveness will feel overstretched; how long do you want to stare at even the loveliest, most industrious ants digging their way through the sand of an ant farm?
Or dancing their way. The movement segments in “What Happened?” — really a concert within the play — go on too long to sustain the drama of character on which the whole effort depends. Though wittily performed by Bydwell and Sakamoto, the selections from Rose’s catalog, based on the choreography of Dan Wagoner and realized by the dance consultant Gwyneth Jones, sometimes seemed to have been calibrated not to the play’s needs but to that of the lasagna cooking in the onstage oven. The lasagna takes 90 minutes; the play, 110.
Still, I found myself agreeing with Irenie, who says when the impromptu concert is over, “I forgot everything else, everything — watching them dance.”
The entire panorama has been built around such moments, in which art does not teach a lesson but provides joy or solace. (Is there a limit to how much of those we need?) No matter how primed we may be to read the larger soap opera of America through the smaller ones of Nelson’s three families, he prefers to look in the opposite direction, at how our difficult times shape individual characters. When the Apples, Gabriels or Michaels have railed about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Andrew Cuomo, it has been as a way of defining themselves.
No politician is name-checked in “What Happened?” — though the title coincidentally echoes that of Clinton’s 2017 memoir. If the play abjures overt mentions of politics, taking instead a valedictory tone like that of the characters, it is not only because it is the last of the series but because the conditions that shaped the series have changed so radically. In our new theatrical environment, which prizes political engagement above all, its quite daring dramaturgy can now seem not daring enough, or daring in a disfavored way.
Nelson doubles down on his position here, not only having his characters ask what happened, but also seeming to ask it of the culture. At one point, David, by profession an arts manager, tells the story of a friend who has been forced out of his job running a New York theater after colleagues complained about his behavior. We never learn what that behavior was, or whether the complaints might have had any merit; all David can say about his friend’s apparent cancellation is “I don’t know,” over and over, like a litany against disaster.
“I don’t know” is a perfectly human position but no safeguard or free pass. In alluding to cancel culture, Nelson is perhaps responding to criticism, including mine, that the Rhinebeck plays have taken insufficient notice of the movements recently roiling American society. It has become increasingly hard to accept that families like those in the panorama — all leftish and artistically oriented — would not be talking more directly than they do about Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Scott Rudin.
But if “I don’t know” feels more like a farewell shrug than a ringing peroration on the value of individualism in the face of pile-on politics, that’s in keeping with the DNA of the Rhinebeck project. My own (somewhat shaken) faith in individualism, buttressed by the brilliant acting of the cast, leaves me treasuring this series of plays that, even in discussing a troubled nation, saw individuals — and families — as the crucial unit of liberal society. As for what that view omits or gets wrong, well, as in families, can we not love what we don’t always perfectly agree with?
What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad
Tickets Through Oct. 8 at the Frederick Loewe Theater, Manhattan; 347-464-8508, huntertheaterproject.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.