Bob Goepfert Reviews "What Do We Need to Talk About?"
One of my greatest adjustments during this forced-stay-at-home period is transitioning from live theater to streaming productions.
I am happy - no, thrilled - to say I have experienced a production online that was not only incredibly satisfying, but so good that it gives me hope that excellent playwrights will find a way to conquer an impersonal delivery system.
Certainly, Richard Nelson has done just that with the play “What Do We Need to Talk About?” It is produced by The Public Theater in New York City and is available on their website and their YouTube channel free of charge through June 28.
This is a piece that dramatically sets itself above most all the others I’ve experienced digitally. Appropriately, this work was written specifically to be performed on Zoom or any of the other streaming platforms. It is a work that fits its environment.
Another virtue is that the writing is superb and timely. Through this family of mostly older or middle age members we truly understand what it is like to live during a pandemic.
This is a play that expresses every fearful thought and insidious doubt that we all have had over the past few months. Yet, if not optimistic, the characters are rational about the situation. “What Do We Need to Talk About” is somber without being depressing and hopeful without being artificial.
It talks about isolation, the loss of friends, the absence of cultural opportunities, the threat to the theatergoing experience and the simple fear of going food shopping.
Because it is set in upstate NY, it addresses concerns of locals about city-dwellers moving to their rural community and has fun with political personalities on a state and national level.
A story is told about how Franklin Pierce is regarded as our country’s most incompetent president. Murmurs and comments suggest the characters would relegate Pierce to the second most incompetent.
“What Do We Need to Talk About?” is a play about the Apple Family, who live in Rhinebeck, NY, as does playwright Nelson. If you follow the Public Theater, the characters might be familiar to you. Between 2010-2013, Nelson wrote and The Public produced four of his others plays using the same characters.
They were set at a dining room table and most of the same actors have played the characters. This attachment shows in the marvelous acting and Nelson’s minimalist direction.
Barbara (Maryanne Plunkett) a woman in her mid-60s, just got out of the hospital and is recovering from a severe case of Coronavirus. Living with her while she recuperates, is Richard, her 67-year old brother. He works in Albany, as a lawyer for Governor Andrew Cuomo. They share a Zoom screen as Richard dotes on his sister.
There is also Jane, (Sally Murphy) a younger sister, who lives with her boyfriend Tim (Stephen Kunken). Tim is a former actor, who now manages a restaurant in Rhinebeck. He has a minor case of the virus and he and Jane are quarantining in separate rooms in Jane’s house.
The final face on the four unit screen is the sophisticated sister Marion (Layla Robbins). She appears the most controlled of the clan, yet her onscreen reactions reveal the most about her feelings towards the others.
The individuals are all honest and the relationships loving. These are good, smart people who are coping with living life in a void.
In years to come, if you want to explain to someone what it was like to live in 2020, this 70-minute Zoom production will paint a sad, but oddly hopeful picture of this moment in time.
In essence, this is a play about how communication is essential to overcoming depression and fear.
Through Zoom, the characters find a way to connect with each other and feel better. It adds to the humanity of the characters and the situation.
That artists use the same technology to create a compelling storytelling experience is as hopeful as it is gratifying.
“What Do We Need to Talk About?” is produced by the Public Theater and available at their website and YouTube channel, through June 28 and is free of charge.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.