Has anyone checked on the Apples? Do they have enough groceries? Are they working remotely? And what do they think about all those Manhattanites fleeing upstate?
The playwright Richard Nelson introduced the clan — three middle-aged sisters and one brother living gently melancholic lives in and around Rhinebeck, N.Y. — in “That Hopey Changey Thing,” at the Public Theater on the evening of the midterm elections, in 2010. He brought them back for a new play in 2011, and again in 2012 and 2013.
Each play took place in the same living room at the same table, covered in the same cloth. Each was set on the night it opened — either an election night or a significant anniversary — offering a discrete time capsule of how members of one middle-class American family understood the world, its peculiar politics and one another, there and then.
Nelson has moved on to other families — the Gabriels (three plays) and the Michaels (one staged, one to come). But for many who met them at the Public or on tour or on public television, the Apples have come to feel like kin. And in the midst of a pandemic, we could be forgiven for wondering how they were doing. Thoughtfully, Nelson and the Public Theater have arranged a video conference.
On Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., on YouTube Live and at the Public Theater’s website, audiences can watch a new Apple play, live: “What Do We Need to Talk About?: Conversations on Zoom.” On our screens, the four Apple siblings and Tim (Stephen Kunken), the boyfriend of the youngest Apple sister, Jane (Sally Murphy), will eat cookies, tell bad jokes, celebrate and mourn. The call should last about an hour. An edited version will stream online for three days after.
“It’s a great surprise,” Nelson said, speaking from his home in Rhinebeck, which he described as “not a bad place to be hunkered down.” He had, he thought, left the Apples behind years ago. But when the pandemic arrived, he realized that he wanted to hear from them and that others might want to hear from them, too.
At the end of March, Nelson wrote to the original cast. Maryann Plunkett, who plays Barbara, the oldest sister; and Laila Robins, who plays the middle sister, Marian, had booked roles on a new television series, “Dr. Death.” Robins was also filming “The Blacklist.” Plunkett’s husband, Jay O. Sanders, who plays Richard Apple, the sole brother, had just opened “Girl From the North Country” on Broadway. Murphy was in previews for “The Minutes,” another Broadway show. Kunken was busy shooting “Billions.”
But with Broadway shuttered and television production shut down, they were all at liberty. Two hours after Nelson sent his email, they had all signed on.
Then he called Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, recently returned from a hospital stay that he thought was likely related to Covid-19. Nelson pitched him a play in the form of a Zoom call. Eustis agreed. “That seemed to me to me an inherently great way to approach virtual theater,” Eustis said. “You’re combining an innovative formal idea with an absolute master playwright.”
Five or six days later, Nelson had produced a draft. “The rapid response of this is part of what’s so beautiful about it,” Eustis said. The Public allotted 25 hours for rehearsal, considerably less than any previous Apple play, but as Nelson said: “You can’t rehearse eight hours a day on Zoom. People would go crazy; it’s just too much staring at a computer.”
On Tuesday, I sat in for the first hour of the first day of rehearsal. Ido Levran, the Public’s video supervisor, was troubleshooting technical problems as Nelson coached the actors on camera placement. A storm had knocked out Kunken’s Wi-Fi, and he was working from his iPhone. Robins fiddled with her view. That afternoon’s goal, Nelson said, was creating intimacy without actual intimacy. Spread throughout the city, the actors tried to find their rhythms, pick up their cues.
In real life, Plunkett and Sanders, who are spouses not siblings, live together in Greenwich Village, so Nelson decided that Richard, who usually lives in Albany, had moved into Barbara’s house in Rhinebeck. Plunkett placed their shared laptop on the same card table that Barbara had unfolded at the beginning of each Apple play, a gift from the producers after the plays’ final tour. “No one will ever know,” Plunkett said. “But we know.” Because Murphy lives on the Upper East Side and Kunken is in Brooklyn, Nelson arranged for Tim to self-quarantine behind a closed door, explaining their individual logins.
Having already collaborated with Thirteen to film the original Apple plays and having learned what was lost when the camera lingers only on one speaker, Nelson decided to stage the call in gallery view. Sequestered in separate frames yet sharing a screen, the Apples will be, like so many of us, alone, together. (Thirteen’s Theater Close-Up site has made the previous Apple Family plays available for viewing. The Gabriels trilogy, too.)
“It’s nice being in the room, even though it’s a virtual room,” Plunkett said, the day after that first rehearsal. “I have real longing for the physical, but I know at this point that’s not what we can do.”
Sanders said something similar, a few minutes later, after Plunkett handed him back his cellphone. “It’s a way to embrace the moment,” he said. “This play isn’t saying, ‘Let’s pretend we’re in a theater.’ This is saying: ‘OK, we’re at home. Let’s do this at home.’”
As earlier Apple plays were set on specific days, Nelson thought he would set this one on a specific day, too. But he worried that tethering it to a particular news conference or mortality statistic would drown out the human voices. “To do that would push the play into a kind of journalism,” he said. And the news, he felt, is already too much with us. So he has set “What Do We Need to Talk About?” on an unnumbered April day, shortly after Barbara has been released from the hospital after experiencing severe Covid-19 symptoms.
Still, the topicality can overwhelm. Reading the play on my laptop, the night before rehearsal, I came to a section where Tim discusses the death of an actor friend. That friend, I saw a few lines later, was Mark Blum, a treasured theater actor who died of complications of the coronavirus on March 25. I had to stop reading for a while. (When Eustis first read the play, he told me, “I was a mess.”)
“What Do We Need to Talk About?” acknowledges the impossibility of live theater, now and in the months to come. “Will big groups of people want to sit tightly together in the same space for a couple of hours,” Tim wonders. “How long will that take?”
But the play will be performed live, restoring some of theater’s ephemerality. “It’s kind of dangerous in a good way,” Sanders said. “It’s like when I do Shakespeare in the Park and the raccoons come on the stage.” In the event of an absolute technical failure, footage from a filmed dress rehearsal will be shown. The technology didn’t seem to worry Nelson. “Compared to what people are going through, it’s a very small issue,” he said.
If “What Do We Need to Talk About?” isn’t quite theater, it is a chance to commune with familiar characters and to think through what faces us and them. It doesn’t necessarily point a way forward — “I don’t believe for a second that we are going to turn into a digital company,” Eustis said, strongly — but it reflects a shared present.
“All I can say is, ‘We’ll see,’” Nelson said. “But this is the life we live in right now. So trying to find a way to live in that world and articulate that world feels important.”