A remarkable theatre marathon following a New York family during the US election is coming to the Perth Festival.
It’s a pretty brave undertaking for both a playwright and an Artistic Director to commit to writing and staging a cycle of three new, as yet unwritten, plays over the course of one year – and not only that, but to resolve to making them absolutely up-to-the minute topical, with revisions to the text happening right up until the opening performance.
The cast of The Gabriels in Hungry. Photo by Joan Marcus
But that’s exactly what Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson did when he embarked on a three-play cycle called The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. Charting the hopes, fears and disappointments of one American family during the recent US presidential election, the final play premiered in New York on the actual night of the election.
The highly acclaimed cycle will now be performed in its entirety by the original American cast as one of the centrepieces of the Perth International Arts Festival, in an exclusive Australian season.
Nelson has form in this kind of undertaking, having previously written a four-play cycle called The Apple Family Plays, which was described by The New York Times as “a rare and radiant mirror of the way we live”. The Apple Plays opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater between 2010 and 2013. In that instance, Nelson wrote one play a year, leading to a full cycle.
However, the three plays that make up The Gabriels (which was also produced by the Public Theater) opened just months apart. The trilogy began in March with Hungry, which premiered during the week of Super Tuesday. The second, What Did You Expect?, opened in September when Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia was making headlines, while the third, Women of a Certain Age, opened on November 8 on the day that Americans went to the polls. The opening night audience entered the theatre not knowing the result and emerged to discover that Donald Trump was almost certainly President-elect.
“We had the opening night party in the lobby of the theatre, and they set up big television screens so we could all watch the election during the party. Well, that was a very interesting evening,” says Nelson, with some understatement, admitting that he had expected the result to go Clinton’s way.
Richard Nelson at the 29th Lucille Lortel Awards
Looking back on it now, Nelson says that writing three such topical plays to such tight, specific deadlines was “a huge pressure. There were moments where I thought I was really crazy,” he says with a laugh.
“The extraordinary Artistic Director [of the Public Theater] Oskar Eustis committed not just to commissioning them, but to productions and opening nights before any words were written. I had three opening nights [programmed], and I had nothing written yet. And so, that’s a bit like walking a tightrope without any net. It felt like that sometimes but it was also really exhilarating to throw yourself into such a project and to be basically handed a theatre. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.”
The response to The Gabriels was glowingly positive. In his review of the final play, Women of a Certain Age, for The New York Times, Ben Brantley said that the trilogy “may collectively represent the most profound achievement in topical theatre in this country since the Depression-era triumphs of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock.
“Not that Mr Nelson’s cycle of works is anything like those ardently partisan predecessors. Neither the Apple nor the Gabriel plays are exhortative in any polemical way. Nor do they belong to that class of domestic melodramas (see: August: Osage County) in which a warring, divided family festers with the sins of their nation,” wrote Brantley.
“What Mr Nelson, who keeps adding to these plays up until hours before their first performances, does is quieter and, ultimately, far sadder and more resonant. He asks us to sit down in real time, in the kitchen of a close family for a casual meal. And as we listen to its members talk, even on trivial subjects like the decoration of cookies, we feel the far-reaching tremors of a scared country that has come down with a rattling case of identity crisis.”
The cast of The Gabriels. Photo by Joan Marcus
The Gabriels are educated, upstate New Yorkers. In each play, members of the family gather to share a meal – which the actors cook in real time. The setting is the heavily mortgaged home of the grieving Mary, a retired doctor whose playwright husband Thomas died shortly before the start of the first play. Other characters include Thomas’s aging mother Patricia, his sister Joyce who is a costume designer, and his first wife Karin, an actress who is now lodging with Mary. Joining them are Thomas’s brother George, a carpenter, and his wife Hannah, who have a college-age son.
Their conversations aren’t overly political, though they support Hillary Clinton, but over the course of the trilogy we learn about their financial struggles, their concerns about the state of the US and their nervousness at the rate at which the world around them is changing.
Clearly Nelson is drawn to the idea of using a family as a way to talk about the state of the nation. Asked why, he says: “I started as a playwright 40-something years ago and I’ve always been interested in writing about my country and about society. And it’s also very much from the point of view of the person, the individual. [When] we wrote plays in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we could talk about society being held together by some ideology, something that we believed in, that connected one group to another.
“By the ‘90s, I think my own faith in ideologies was evaporating extremely quickly. So, I started to try to find a different way to talk about individuals and the relationships they have with their society and their country. I read people like Ibsen and obviously Chekhov, and O’Neill for that matter, and I discovered that within the family dynamic there was a society and a history that people have together. And so, the family became a unit that had so much depth and so much complexity and so much ambiguity, that it was a way of talking about something much larger.”
As to the decision to set the plays in a kitchen, where a meal is being prepared, Nelson says he feels that “there are conversations that occur when food is being cooked that have a different quality. I read somewhere that human beings are the only animals that cook, which I had never thought about, and I realised that’s true. It’s one of the things that makes us human. So, if you’re trying to put complex people on stage, why not have the play function around one of the activities, which is a defining element of being human.”
Nelson thought long and hard about the kinds of food the characters would cook, and also had to choose meals which the actors could prepare in the right amount of time. He settled on steak, ratatouille and salad for the first play, a picnic for the second, and a meal from a Betty Crocker children’s cookbook for the third: “Food they might have cooked when they were eight years old.”
With each of the three plays, Nelson tweaked the dialogue through the previews to make it as current as possible, locking the text down on the day of the opening, which was somewhat nerve-wracking.
“If something really major had happened that changed everything, and the feelings [of the characters], that would have been tricky,” he says. “But I was ready and game. I knew what I’d committed myself to, and it was exciting because it felt, for a writer, it really gave you an immediate engagement with what was happening.”
The actors, he says, were “wonderfully game. They knew in advance how this was gonna work. I warned them we would put in a few new lines, not many but a few new lines at four or five o’clock on the opening night. So, it was amazing.”
Even though neither he nor the Gabriel family anticipated a Trump victory, Nelson says he never considered adding a post-script or revising the final play to take account of the election result.
“When we did it in preview, the play was set in the future. And then when we did it on opening night, it literally was in the present, at that moment. And from then on it’s a period play. I think a period play really captures a kind of honesty. The writer doesn’t have any more knowledge than the characters do. And so, when you watch the play now, there’s a very interesting quality to it, something very true that you wouldn’t be able to write if you knew the results.”
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family plays at the Subiaco Arts Centre, February 11 – 18 as part of the Perth International Arts Festival