Review: In ‘What Happened?,’ a Questioning Farewell to Rhinebeck

Kate, a lady in her late 60s, sits alone at a weather-beaten desk, the litter of a cauliflower lasagna largely cleared and her dinner companions now out for the night. Together, they’ve spent a lot of the final two hours speaking about Rose, Kate’s spouse, who six months earlier, whereas dying of ovarian most cancers, was killed by Covid-19 as a substitute.

After all that reminiscing, letter-reading and even dancing — Rose was a fashionable dance choreographer — what does Kate do?

Nothing. She sits, rises, walks slowly in regards to the kitchen. And but for a lengthy minute or two of silence, you see on her face all of the issues she’s feeling, or actually, all of the issues she is: grieving but resolute, prickly but proud. This is high-wire performing at its most subtly breathtaking, with out even the wire of plot to maintain it up.

Maryann Plunkett’s efficiency in “What Happened?” is high-wire performing at its most subtly breathtaking.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

If “What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” which opened Wednesday evening at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theater, did nothing greater than supply us one other likelihood to see Maryann Plunkett do nothing, it will have been sufficient. We’ve been watching her do it for 11 years now, enjoying varied characters in Richard Nelson’s 12-play sequence referred to as the “Rhinebeck Panorama”; on this newest and final installment, she stays the identical marvel as ever.

But it’s not simply Plunkett. Jay O. Sanders, her husband, is one other dramatic funambulist who has appeared in all 12 performs. Earlier in “What Happened?” he has a scene during which, as David Michael, he should persuade his daughter, Lucy, to signal papers permitting the closely mortgaged home she grew up in to be offered. (David was as soon as married to Rose; Lucy is their daughter.) This is about as a lot dramatic motion as Nelson ever requires, and the trade is correspondingly tense. Yet the actual drama occurs solely after Lucy has reluctantly agreed. Sanders walks away from the win and, practically unnoticed, lifts a nook of his plaid shirt to wipe his eye.

Jay O. Sanders, like Plunkett, has appeared in all 12 Rhinebeck performs.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Nelson, who has directed all 12 performs within the sequence, has all the time beelined towards such moments. His stripped-down dramaturgy asks us to care about character greater than story, and to see the biggest issues within the smallest particulars. The installments within the lives of his three Rhinebeck households — the Michaels and earlier than them the Apples and the Gabriels, all of them neighbors in that city 100 miles north of New York City — have been, for followers, the very best sort of cleaning soap opera, albeit one set solely in kitchens and with all of the hysterical climaxes lopped off. Even with out cliffhangers, these extraordinary performs have left us scrambling with every new go to to recall how issues stood “when last we left them,” and questioning what is going to occur subsequent.

In “What Happened?,” although, as its title signifies, Nelson is extra within the speedy previous. When final we left the Michaels, in October 2019, Rose was ailing however nonetheless domineering, and Kate was internet hosting a dinner for her spouse’s members of the family and colleagues. Aside from David and Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), these included two of Rose’s former dancers: David’s spouse, Sally (Rita Wolf), and Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris). Also there was Rose’s niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto), like Lucy a younger dancer studying and adapting a few of Rose’s basic items for a valedictory efficiency.

That play was subtitled “Conversations During Difficult Times” however the issue of the coronavirus was but to come. Two years later, in “What Happened?,” we discover the identical characters shuffled into new preparations. Lucy and May are actually in Angers, France, having been stranded by the pandemic on the residence of one other of Rose’s former dancers, Suzanne Raphael (Yvonne Woods). Though Lucy couldn’t attend her mom’s funeral again in Rhinebeck earlier within the yr, the lifting of some restrictions has allowed the remainder of the group to fly to France to attend a convention about Rose’s work at a fashionable dance heart there.

Confusing as it could really feel to enter such a complicated set of relationships so abruptly — the play begins with David saying, “One day Kate got your mom talking” — the forged’s readability and endurance quickly repay. Watching them assemble the story in small recollections, like a jigsaw puzzle of the previous, I used to be by no means lower than engaged. For some theatergoers, although, Nelson’s excessive discursiveness will really feel overstretched; how lengthy would you like to stare at even the loveliest, most industrious ants digging their means by the sand of an ant farm?

Or dancing their means. The motion segments in “What Happened?” — actually a live performance inside the play — go on too lengthy to maintain the drama of character on which the entire effort relies upon. Though wittily carried out by Bydwell and Sakamoto, the picks from Rose’s catalog, based mostly on the choreography of Dan Wagoner and realized by the dance advisor Gwyneth Jones, typically appeared to have been calibrated not to the play’s wants however to that of the lasagna cooking within the onstage oven. The lasagna takes 90 minutes; the play, 110.

Charlotte Bydwell, as Lucy, the daughter of the trendy dance luminary Rose Michael.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Still, I discovered myself agreeing with Irenie, who says when the impromptu live performance is over, “I forgot everything else, everything — watching them dance.”

The total panorama has been constructed round such moments, during which artwork doesn’t train a lesson however offers pleasure or solace. (Is there a restrict to how a lot of these we’d like?) No matter how primed we could also be to learn the bigger cleaning soap opera of America by the smaller ones of Nelson’s three households, he prefers to look in the wrong way, at how our tough instances form particular person characters. When the Apples, Gabriels or Michaels have railed about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Andrew Cuomo, it has been as a means of defining themselves.

No politician is name-checked in “What Happened?” — although the title coincidentally echoes that of Clinton’s 2017 memoir. If the play abjures overt mentions of politics, taking as a substitute a valedictory tone like that of the characters, it’s not solely as a result of it’s the final of the sequence however as a result of the circumstances that formed the sequence have modified so radically. In our new theatrical setting, which prizes political engagement above all, its fairly daring dramaturgy can now appear not daring sufficient, or daring in a disfavored means.

Nelson doubles down on his place right here, not solely having his characters ask what occurred, but in addition seeming to ask it of the tradition. At one level, David, by occupation an arts supervisor, tells the story of a buddy who has been pressured out of his job working a New York theater after colleagues complained about his habits. We by no means be taught what that habits was, or whether or not the complaints might need had any benefit; all David can say about his buddy’s obvious cancellation is “I don’t know,” time and again, like a litany towards catastrophe.

“I don’t know” is a completely human place however no safeguard or free cross. In alluding to cancel tradition, Nelson is probably responding to criticism, together with mine, that the Rhinebeck performs have taken inadequate discover of the actions not too long ago roiling American society. It has turn into more and more arduous to settle for that households like these within the panorama — all leftish and artistically oriented — wouldn’t be speaking extra immediately than they do about Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Scott Rudin.

But if “I don’t know” feels extra like a farewell shrug than a ringing peroration on the worth of individualism within the face of pile-on politics, that’s consistent with the DNA of the Rhinebeck undertaking. My personal (considerably shaken) religion in individualism, buttressed by the sensible performing of the forged, leaves me treasuring this sequence of performs that, even in discussing a troubled nation, noticed people — and households — because the essential unit of liberal society. As for what that view omits or will get incorrect, properly, as in households, can we not love what we don’t all the time completely agree with?

What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad
Tickets Through Oct. eight on the Frederick Loewe Theater, Manhattan; 347-464-8508, huntertheaterproject.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.