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Off-Broadway Play Review—Richard Nelson’s “The Michaels”

The Michaels

Written and directed by Richard Nelson

Performances through December 1, 2019


Brenda Wehle and Charlotte Bydwell in The Michaels (photo: Joan Marcus)


Richard Nelson’s conversational, almost shockingly quiet plays—which began with That Hopey Changey Thing in 2010—happily continue with the start of his third cycle, The Michaels


Taking its cue from The Apples and The Gabriels—all of the plays are set in Rhinebeck, a bucolic small town two-plus hours north of Manhattan—The Michaels is set in the kitchen of Rose Michael, a former dancer and teacher who lives with her partner of six months, Kate. In the course of a couple of hours—all of these plays are set in real time, which accentuates the feeling that we are eavesdropping on a real family preparing dinner—Rose’s kitchen is filled not only with food and dance and music and conversation, but also with warmth: and even occasional discord. Present are her family and friends: Rose’s ex-husband, theater producer David; their daughter, dancer Lucy; David’s wife (and Rose’s colleague/friend from their dancing days), Sally; Rose’s niece May; and another longtime dancer friend, Irenie.


Rose’s incurable cancer hangs over the proceedings; Lucy is planning to go to France for a dance intensive but has second thoughts since she doesn’t want to leave her mother. Kate—who was Lucy’s ninth-grade history teacher, something that would seem contrived in another playwright’s hands but which shows Nelson’s close attention to grace notes that flesh out these relationships—doesn’t know much about dance, so she gets explanations when Rose namedrops Merce or Tricia or Paul or Pina. But Nelson isn’t just showing off his arcane knowledge: like his previous dance-oriented play, Nikolai and the Others (about Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s collaboration on Orpheus), Nelson couches such information in the coziness of a chamber drama/character study, making it seem as natural as breathing.


And natural as breathing is what dance is to several of these characters, so Nelson affectingly includes a trio of dances, a solo each by Lucy and May and a duet for them (Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Takamoto give fiercely physical performances as the pair). While their movements are exhilarating—the closeness of the audience to the stage makes these moments particularly intimate—the dance episodes also provide insight into the dynamics of the relationships between Rose and Lucy, and, by extension, to Rose and May’s mom, Rose’s sister, who is still living in their hometown of Utica: to Rose’s eternal, and amusing, horror. 


As always in these plays, the dialogue is delightfully natural: Nelson has mastered the art, from Chekhov, of quotidian talk providing further dimension to his characters than showier monologues or confrontations. Since it’s set on October 27, 2019—in the midst of the disaster that is the tRump administration—The Michaels mentions al-Baghdadi’s killing earlier that day, along with a French play that David saw in Paris about tRump and Kermit the Frog. But as Nelson showed in his other Rhinebeck Panorama plays, he’s not willing to gratuitously take down tRump and his Republican minions, however much they deserve it. Instead, there’s an unspoken sigh in the air, a semblance of political burn-out that defines these people, along with most of the country’s population.


The acting is, unsurprisingly, superlative. Maryann Plunkett (Kate) and Jay O. Sanders (David) are the only veterans of the other Rhinebeck plays, and their lived-in performances have a genuine feel of homey familiarity. Rita Wolf (Sally), Haviland Morris (Irenie) and Brenda Wehle (Rose) are equally masterly inhabiting their characters. The play’s final moments, thanks to the combined efforts of the writer/director and his estimable cast, are unbearably moving in their ordinariness—the ultimate strength of Nelson’s ennobling theater.


The Michaels

The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

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