Less than a year after introducing the Apple family on stage, Richard Nelson has returned with the same cast playing the same characters — except this time, they're all peering into the past.
"Sweet and Sad" is Nelson's subtle, rather wonderful play at the The Public Theater about history, ghosts and loss set on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It's the second of four ingeniously planned plays charting the changes undergone by an extended family from the village of Rhinebeck, N.Y., just outside the city.
Last year's "That Hopey Changey Thing" was set on Election Day Nov. 2, 2010. The latest reunion is prompted by a memorial concert in town that will feature Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries) reading from "The Wound-Dresser" by Walt Whitman (the play's title comes from a line in the poem).
Richard Apple (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer for the state attorney general's office, makes a surprise visit to his relatives after attending a memorial for the Sept. 11 fallen.
"Funny, it's one of those days, isn't it — where it comes in and out of your consciousness. Your head. The anniversary," says Richard.
His relatives have had a tough year. Tragedy has led one of his sisters, Marian (Laila Robins), to move in with their sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett). Both are teachers and both look after Uncle Benjamin, who is still suffering from amnesia but has now added cigarettes to his diet. His past may be fuzzy but there is at least one surprise lurking.
Jane, the third sister, has finished her book about societal manners that was discussed in the first play. She's still with her sweet boyfriend Tim (Shuler Hensley), an actor and the only character not tied by blood to the others.
Nelson, who both wrote the play and directed, puts poignant and seemingly random stories in the mouths of each actor as he/she munches on salad and drinks wine.
There's a story about ghosts in a Broadway theater, a Yiddish book buyer, the discovery of a cache of appointment books that end abruptly, tidbits about the history of the Hudson River and tough questions prompted by 9/11 that students have asked.
Filtered through inside jokes and sibling teasing, the stories are like spider webs, little fragments of ideas that over time coalesce.
Part of the reason this play works so well is the cast, which is superb. There's a comfort level in the roles and with each other that makes their interaction so lifelike that you might be tempted to reach for the salad. Nelson knows all too well how petty and resentful — and also how supportive and loving — families can be.
All six actors are excellent, but the standouts include DeVries, who alternates between sweet befuddlement and frustration; Robins, whose wounds are achingly deep; Sanders, who keeps his vulnerabilities hidden from his sisters; and Hensley, who is cutely awkward at first but soon reveals his charismatic side.
The next installment can't come soon enough.