With What Happened? The Michaels Abroad, Richard Nelson brings to a close his ambitious 12-play cycle which he has named The Rhinebeck Panorama. These include the four Apple Plays which began on the night of Election Day, 2010 with That Hopey Changy Thing and the three Gabriel Plays which concluded with Women of a Certain Age set on Election Day, 2016, the end of the contest between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. During the Pandemic Year of 2020, Nelson created three Apple Plays for Zoom in which the characters met online from their own homes and brought us up to date. The cycle concludes with the two Michael plays, the first subtitled “Conversations During Difficult Times,” which took place on October 27, 2019, and the latest and final one, set on September 8, 2021.
The new play, ironically, does not take place in Rhinebeck, New York, like the preceeding 11 plays but as explained in its subtitle it concerns “Conversations in Angers, France,” the home of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaire (CNDC). Like the previous Michael play, it is set on the eve of a dance festival honoring American dancer and choreographer Rose Michael who has passed away about six months before this play begins. However, unlike the earlier play which was about the art of creation, this play is mainly about living with the Covid pandemic and our adaptations to it, as well as the hermetically sealed world of dancers. While the play tells a lot of anecdotes about dancers and does a certain amount of name dropping of such people as Trisha (Brown), Merce (Cunningham), Dan (Wagoner), it eventually attempts to wax philosophical with such remarks as “there is no life without death,” and “life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. And it doesn’t matter…”; and “we dance differently at sixty.”
While the Apple and Gabriel plays had a great deal of political content tied to elections or other historic events (the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy), What Happened? subtly injects a downward spiral of economics: Rose’s daughter Lucy has to sell the house she has inherited from her mother as she cannot afford the taxes or the credit card debt her mother incurred. Kate, a retired history teacher in Rhinebeck and Rose’s partner of the last two years, has lost the social security payment with the death of Rose.
Impresario David, Lucy’s father and Rose’s ex-husband, is planning on selling his house on the same property as he has had no income during the 18 months of the pandemic and had personally guaranteed two dance tours that never happened which has put him deeply in debt. By the end of the play most of the characters will not be returning to Rhinebeck to live: David and his second wife Sally will probably be moving to Utica where he will take over the management of an arts center. Dancers Lucy and her cousin May, who also hails from Utica, will also be abandoning Rhinebeck. The gentrification of Rhinebeck is all but complete: the new owners of Rose’s house will most likely tear it down and also build a pool – although the property comes with a shared lake.
Like the other plays, What Happened? is set in a kitchen, this time in Angers, France, in the apartment of Suzanne Raphael (Yvonne Woods), a former principal dancer in Rose’s company, now an instructor at the CNDC-Angers. And like the Apple and Gabriel plays a meal is made (a lasagna for which a recipe is provided), and here eaten, as the characters prepare to leave for the dance festival with recreations of Rose’s dances by Lucy, May and Suzanne. Nelson, directing as he has for all 12 Rhinebeck plays, has been able to again keep the cast together: Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett (who are married to each other offstage and have appeared in all 12 plays) as David and Kate; Rita Wolf and Haviland Morris as Rose’s former principal dancers Sally and Irenie, and Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Sakamoto as cousins Lucy and May.
Although the first Michaels play told us that Rose was dying of ovarian cancer, it is not until halfway through the new play that we discover that she has eventually died of Covid 19. Having accepted the residency in Angers offered in the first play, Lucy has been there for a year and a half during the shutdown and was unable to get home for her mother’s funeral. May who has been visiting Suzanne for the last two months to be part of the festival had tested positive in Rhinebeck and blames herself for her aunt’s death, although it is not known if she, in fact, gave it to her. Joining them in Angers for the tribute to Rose’s work are David and Sally who are staying with Suzanne’s unseen brother, Jacques-Francois, the first male dancer in Rose’s company. Kate who married Rose during the pandemic and Irenie who visited Rose in the earlier play arrive from New York together as the play begins.
In a program note by the author, he quotes an early 20th century Spanish playwright: “There are two kinds of plays, one where the audience asks itself – what is going to happen? And the other, where they ask: what happened? What Happened? The Michaels Abroad aspires to be the later.” Described as Chekhovian, not much happens in Nelson’s Rhinebeck plays and the least of all in the new one, except that decisions are announced or made. The family and the audience are entertained by excerpts from five of Rose’s dances (based on the choreography of Dan Wagoner, recreated by Gwyneth Jones) supposedly adapted by Lucy and May. Unfortunately, the rarified atmosphere of the world of dance will make many audience members feel like outsiders as indeed we are, almost eavesdropping on their private conversations, sitting as we are on the fringes of the kitchen.
While the kitchen setting by Jason Ardizzone-West (which looks a great deal like the Rhinebeck kitchens in the previous plays) puts us ringside, the tiny four-sided Frederick Loewe Theater gives everyone in the audience a fixed view which should be different for each member. As in the other plays, Nelson has directed the actors to use what he has called conversational speaking tones which at times make it difficult to understand what the actors are saying, considering some of them have their backs to some viewers at all times in various locations. As she had done for all of the stage plays in the cycle, Susan Hilferty’s costumes define the characters and look like they have worn them over the years. Of course, it goes without saying that the acting is of a high quality as the actors have lived with these characters a long time, six of them having played their roles in the previous Michael play. Unfortunately, they cannot give the play greater depth than the author has written into it or overcome the artificially rarified atmosphere.
What Happened? The Michaels Abroad (through October 8, 2021)
Hunter Theater Project presents An Independent Theater production
Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College, 68th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.huntertheaterproject.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes with no intermission