For the past few weeks, producers, directors, and actors around the country, but especially in New York, have begun to cope with the reality that it may be months before theaters can reopen or people will once again feel safe sitting in a cramped space next to hundreds of strangers.
And some have embraced this forced hiatus by staging the occasional livestreamed productions of plays, largely as fundraisers. These range from a starry staged reading of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play Lips Together, Teeth Apart to a recreation of Michael Urie’s one-man show, Buyer & Cellar.
But Wednesday night represented something of a milestone: the world premiere of a play written specifically about this strange time we are now living in and staged to take advantage of the fact that almost none of the actors could be in the same room together.
Call it the first Zoom play.
The play was What Do We Need to Talk About? by Richard Nelson, the latest installment of his narrative series The Apple Family Plays. It was staged and livestreamed by New York’s Public Theater, the home of the first four plays in this series (starting with That Hopey Changey Thing, set on the evening of the 2010 midterm elections). The plays all focus on the same family (three middle-aged sisters and one brother living in and around Rhinebeck, New York) and all star the same four actors: Laila Robins, Sally Murphy, Maryann Plunkett, and Jay O. Sanders. (On Wednesday, they were again joined by Stephen Kunken, in the role of Tim, the boyfriend of the youngest Apple sister, Jane.)
The last Apple play, Regular Singing, was performed in 2013 (“which seems like a hundred years ago,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, in a taped introduction to the play), and Nelson had moved on to other projects. But as the playwright told the New York Times recently, the pandemic made him he realized that he wanted to hear from the Apples again and that others might want to hear from them too.
In March, he sent an email to all the actors, asking if they wanted to regroup. Two hours later, he said, all had said yes. (The fact that all their acting jobs were temporarily on hold meant that all, sadly, were available.) Then Nelson went to Eustis, who 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 be an inherently great way to approach virtual theater,” Eustis told the Times. “You’re combining an innovative formal idea with an absolute master playwright.”
Less than a week later, the play was written.
What Do We Need to Talk About? is set in mid-April, shortly after the eldest sister, Barbara (Plunkett), has been released from the hospital after experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms. (Tim may have also contracted the coronavirus, so he is quarantined in the bedroom of the home he shares with Jane; she leaves his food on a tray outside the door.) Only Plunkett and Sanders, who play brother and sister but in real life are married, are in the same room. The rest are calling in by Zoom.
As with all of the previous plays, this one was written and performed in almost real time, bringing a jolt of reality-first amusing and then heartbreaking-to the evening.
Richard, the sole brother, happens to work in Albany, for New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Yes, Andrew Cuomo, the much-unloved three-term governor who has become a heroic figure and unlikely heartthrob for his response to the coronavirus crisis-a turn of events that seems to amaze the Apples. “He’s different now,” says one character, adding, “I like him now,” as Richard shakes his head in seeming disbelief.
The news intrudes in a different way a few minutes later, when Tim talks about an acting colleague who recently contracted the coronavirus and did not survive. “He had asthma,” Tim explains and then goes on to talk about a time, early in their careers, when they worked together. And you realize, with a sudden shock, that he is talking about Mark Blum, a much-loved longtime fixture in the New York theater world, who died of a coronavirus-related illness a few weeks ago. (Eustis told the Times that when he first read the play, “I was a mess.”)
They also reflect some of the conversations probably taking place among the people watching them on YouTube (more than 5,000 at one point, 10 times the number that could have fit into the main stage of the Public Theater), including the uncertain future now confronting their children. Says one character, “They feel like the world is ending just as they are arriving in it.” And theater itself draws some scrutiny in this age of social distancing about whether it can survive this pandemic. “The first cough from the audience, and who’s listening to the play?” says Richard.
The plot of the play is built upon the thinnest of threads: Each character tells a story designed to help all of them forget, if even for just an hour, the terrible pandemic raging outside their doors. It’s suggested by Barbara, a high school English teacher, who tells the others that the 14th-century classic The Decameron was composed during the black death pandemic as a way to distract a population stuck in quarantine
And while those stories-which ranged from the tale of how an unexpected best seller by a late-in-life author might have been stolen from the person who actually wrote it to the mysterious disappearance of a wayward relative-were engaging and amusing, the real power of the experience was watching these five actors play off each through their laptops. As you watch them, hunched over your own laptop with your Zoom setting seemingly on gallery, you begin to realize that you are not just an observer of these conversations; you are a silent participant. It’s a kind of theatrical intimacy that is unique to this experience. It’s almost like you are watching a new art form being born.
And the response from viewers seemed to reflect that, along with a gratefulness that, for at least one night, live theater was again a part of their lives.
“Thank you @PublicTheaterNY,” tweeted the actor Patrick Vaill, last seen on Broadway in Oklahoma. “I needed that. I needed that really badly.”
And the director Tina Landau tweeted, “Wow. Thank you, Richard Nelson, for…and the truly remarkable cast of… and @PublicTheaterNY always: What Do We Need to Talk About?, just streamed-so moving and funny and so para. New art & new forms.