NEW YORK – In the last three months since I arrived in New York to study American drama with a grant from the Asian Cultural Council, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to international cultural exchange, I have been to the theater more than 70 times — including at least a dozen visits to somewhere that’s been a truly sparkling discovery: The Public Theater in the NoHo district of downtown Manhattan.
The Public, as it’s known, occupies the very grand brick-and-stone former Astor Library that opened in 1854 as a free public facility. Since the theater debuted there in 1967 with the world premiere of the musical “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” — its mission has been to embrace the complexities of contemporary society.
Every day, its five performance spaces, ranging in audience capacity from 99 to 299, play host to a tremendous diversity of works — from classics to new productions, musicals, and more. Every time I climb the stairs and step into the lobby, I feel in my bones the expectant energy of all those people lining up for hours for standby tickets, or waiting for the doors to open.
But “Hair” — which distilled the very zeitgeist of youth in the era of hippie culture and the Vietnam War — isn’t this off-Broadway mecca’s only claim to fame. Among many other great works it has brought into being are Marvin Hamlisch’s perennially popular 1975 musical “A Chorus Line” and Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical play “The Normal Heart,” an indictment of the gay community’s and the authorities’ response to the 1981-84 AIDS crisis in New York.
So far during my stay, standout works I’ve seen at The Public have included “Grasses of a Thousand Colors,” a humorous but disturbing new fairytale-style play by Wallace Shawn about a near-future dystopia, and “The Good Person of Szechwan,” Bertolt Brecht’s searing 1943 demonstration of how economic systems — whether socialist or capitalist — determine social morality.
In “Fun Home,” meanwhile, The Public treated us to — in terms of its mainstream engagement with lesbianism — an ambitious adaptation by Lisa Kron of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel about the tension between a lesbian daughter and her closet-gay father. And incidentally, the musical is still playing despite only having first been scheduled for a two-week run through Nov. 3, 2013.
Then came “Arguendo” (a Latin legal term meaning “for the sake of argument”), a verbatim play created and performed by Elevator Repair Service, a New York-based theater ensemble that explores freedom of expression through a U.S. Supreme Court hearing about the artistic merit of nude dancing.
I thought all that holding, “as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” (“Hamlet”: Act 3), would be hard to top — but then along came “The Apple Family Plays,” a four-part series by Richard Nelson.
Each autumn since 2010, another installment has been added to this oeuvre, and when the fourth and final one opened in November, it was my good fortune that a reprise of the entire series was also staged.
The first, “That Hopey Changey Thing,” was set on the night of 2010’s midterm congressional elections when Republicans retook the House of Representatives; the second, “Sweet and Sad,” focused on the 10th anniversary of 9/11; the third, “Sorry,” took place on the night in November 2012 when Barack Obama was re-elected to the presidency; and the fourth, “Regular Singing,” is set on Nov. 22, 2013 — precisely 50 years after President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Each of the plays takes place around the kitchen table of the fictional Apple family’s home in the bijou town of Rhinebeck, New York state, where the playwright lives 150 km from Manhattan. There, we meet the cast of six disparate characters — the three Apple sisters, Barbara and Marian, who live in the town and work as teachers, and Jane, a non-fiction writer living in Manhattan; their brother Richard, a lawyer living in Manhattan (they say they don’t all have the same father); their actor uncle Benjamin who is suffering from amnesia after having a heart attack; and Jane’s boyfriend Tim, who is also an actor.
As the family members prepare a meal, eat it and tidy up afterward, they talk together continuously in soft tones and with extremely natural gestures. Among the topics they cover are family, work, politics, books, acting — and potentially contentious current affairs.
Yet though politics is a key motif in all four plays, arguments are not. Rather, as Nelson states in his program notes, “It is my hope that these plays are about the need to talk, the need to listen, the need for theater, and the need to be in the same room together.”
In short, as the subtitle to the series of plays — “Scenes from Life in the Country” — suggests, this all amounts to a sort of Chekhovian drama extending over seven hours in all, during which time everyone ultimately manages to keep moving forward in a world whose roadmap has been lost.
In keeping with that, one character who is writing a book titled “American Manners” often engages others in debates about why the trivial manners and customs in everyday life exist, asking “What are we pretending to be? What are we hiding?” — questions that might cut to the core of the entire work.
Indeed, I owe thanks to The Public Theater for introducing me to “The Apple Family Plays.” Altogether, this four-part masterwork so impressed me because, despite being quintessentially American in its characters and the culture depicted, this audience member — who’s neither American nor a New Yorker — found himself so deeply moved from the heart.
And for sure, I won’t ever forget seeing the way it could be — how those family members spoke to each other, listening carefully, reacting, and holding one another.
Atsuro Hirota is a drama translator / dramaturg. He is staying in New York City as an Asian Cultural Council grantee. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.