Writer and director Richard Nelson expands his distinctive brand of kitchen-table realism with his splendidly acted new play, The Michaels, the eighth drama in his Rhinebeck Panorama presented by the Public Theater. Like its predecessors, The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels, which are also set around a gathering and a meal, the production turns theatergoing into eavesdropping of the richest kind. Nelson’s ace ensemble doesn’t so much play their parts as embody them as naturally as breathing. Underscoring that notion, the sound of a deep inhalation is heard during blackouts between scenes played for the most part in real time.
The action unfolds at the Hudson Valley home of the acclaimed, if thorny, modern dance choreographer Rose Michael (Brenda Wehle), who, after a bit of dramatic tiptoeing, is revealed to be battling cancer. That’s on the mind of everyone present: her new partner Kate (the invaluable Maryann Plunkett), an ex-teacher; Rose’s ex-husband David (Jay O. Sanders), a producer; and his wife Sally (Rita Wolf), who, like Irenie (Haviland Morris), a guest from New York City, performed in Rose’s company. Rose and David’s daughter Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) and Lucy’s cousin May (Matilda Sakamoto) are in town rehearsing a celebration of Rose’s works, which get impromptu performances in the crowded kitchen. As Kate prepares a light meal – quiche and salad – the plainspoken conversation can get heavy. Talk courses from life and death and the uncertain future to a brief mention of current politics, which will kill any appetite. In the end, there are few answers or resolutions, just questions and plenty of leftovers. The dance of life is like that.