Pictures from Home, a stark, but eventually moving vision of a family, is based on the photo memoir of the same name by Larry Sultan. Sharr White, the playwright, has taken Sultan’s expansive volume of family remembrances and reduced its literary and visual extravagances to the size of the stage of Studio 54.
The director Bartlett Sher and his colleagues have fashioned a microcosmic look at a mother, father and son, all hiding behind façades carefully sculpted over decades. That they are played by three terrific theater veterans—Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker and Danny Burstein—helps spin this play into theatrical gold, an intimate, human-scale work that stands out in a season of blaring musicals.
The play uses actual photographs and home movies of Sultan’s family, the characters that the actors portray, all of whom have passed away. The son, Larry (Burstein) has been coming down from San Francisco to visit his parents, Irving and Jean Sultan (Lane and Wanamaker) for years, photographing and interviewing them continually, sometimes to their annoyance, in the name of a “project” he is assembling which became the aforementioned book by the actual Larry Sultan.
His parents aren’t totally into their son’s creation and speak sardonically of his talents and his lack of attention to his family. Larry’s protestations never win them over.
Larry wanders about his parents’ home as if it were merely a laboratory and his father and mother were lab rats running a maze, questioning them for details on each photo and every inch of Super-8 film, totally ignoring his own family up in San Francisco. This self-delusion of his project’s importance is finally shattered by the end of the play, shattered by the fate of his parents.
For a good deal of the play, attention is focused on Irving as his story unwinds in a series of photographs projected onto the back wall of the set (projections designed by 59 Productions). They show him, a handsome man, as he ages from young man to meeting his wife and his life in New York City where he feels compelled to use the name John Sutton to appear non-Jewish. His experience at selling men’s clothing eventually leads the family to move from NYC to Los Angeles where life, at least according to the real home movies, was totally idyllic. He eventually finds lucrative work in the Schick Razor Company, but is unceremoniously tossed out after decades with that company.
This leads to Jean becoming the breadwinner as a successful real estate agent, a fact she both revels in and holds over Irving’s head. When the couple decides to move to Palm Desert, Larry is upset. This leads to a denouement that is heartbreaking, amplified by the doppelganger photos.
It is Jean that brings Larry down to earth from his idolizing his childhood and his parents. He finally understands the terrible inevitability of life to which he has been naively blind. All the information he has gathered only slowly adds up to a true understanding of the richness of his parents’ lives. The ending is both sobering and upbeat.
That these three constantly dance around each other psychologically and emotionally makes Jennifer Tipton—one of the leading lighting artists for dance for many years—the perfect lighting designer for Pictures. She manages to permit the projected films and photos to register clearly while also illuminating the tug of war between the characters.
The set by Michael Yeargan produces an unsettling visual perspective that somehow defies logic, clearly meant to keep the audience a bit off balance. There is a dramatic transformation towards the end as the couple moves to Palm Desert. The understated costumes by Jennifer Moeller are both period perfect and character defining.
Sher controls the balance between the actors talking directly to the audience and the many photos, somehow letting his brilliant cast shine.
Burstein has a slightly befuddled and defensive armor and hides behind a wry sense of humor. His Larry is incredibly moving. Wanamaker actually looks eerily like the real life Jean. She manages a gentle Brooklyn accent and projects a quiet strength. Lane is superb as the wounded yet still strong Irving. All three are convincing as a family.
Pictures from Home (through April 30, 2023)
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.picturesfromhomebroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission