“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,” wrote the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in his Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, “the more narrowly I limit my field of action.” This is also a poetics of theater as practiced by the American playwright Richard Nelson in his acclaimed Rhinebeck Panorama. The 12 plays that make up the Panorama—seven on the Apple family, three on the Gabriels, and two on the Michaels—have engaged Nelson since 2010, when the first Apple play appeared. And to what does Nelson limit his field of action? The kitchen tables in three homes in upstate New York, where the Apples or Gabriels or Michaels are preparing a meal and talking.
Nelson’s work is often compared to that of Anton Chekhov, whose plays are set within the family circle. Both writers have an inner ear for the dropped stitches of discourse, the dreams that simmer, what’s said and what is left unsaid. But there’s another element to Nelson’s plays. They are sensitively attuned to America’s political crosscurrents, and their premieres are in sync with the issues of the day.
“They’re human stories that deal with the current moment in a really exciting way,” David Muse, the artistic director of the Studio Theatre, in Washington, D.C., has said. “The focus of the plays is not on driving plot but rather on richness of character and relationship revealed moment by moment in very subtle ways.” Door-slamming arguments are not on the menu.
Most of the 12 plays were produced by the Public Theater, but due to issues of logistics and timing, the final installment of the Panorama plays—What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad—has been produced by the Hunter Theater Project, led by the eminent Gregory Mosher, the chair of Hunter College’s theater department. The show runs through October 8 at the Frederick Loewe Theatre.
The first of the Michaels plays, titled The Michaels, premiered in 2019 and revolves around Rose Michaels, a revered modern-dance choreographer. The theme of dance allowed Nelson to introduce movement into the mix, yet another way of using silence and communicating complexity. Rose is in the late stages of ovarian cancer, and while her female companion oversees dinner, family and friends plan a tribute to her career.
The new play, What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad, does not take place in a house in Rhinebeck but at a table in Angers, France, at a dance festival. The death of Rose is part of something more pervasive—that airborne loss, the sudden absence, that began darkening doors in the winter of 2020. —Laura Jacobs
What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad is on through October 8 at the Frederick Loewe Theatre, in New York