Given the vitriol that has molded American politics over the last presidential election season into a simulacrum of the professional wrestling television franchise, I assumed that a play cycle subtitled Election Year in the Life of One Family would be explosive. I imagined the titular family, The Gabriels, to be a dysfunctional lot, harboring gun-toting members of the Alt-Right in a unit over the garage, while a contingent of millennials tie-dyed “Feel the Bern” T-shirts over the kitchen stove.
Richard Nelson’s three-play cycle came to the Hong Kong Arts Festival from New York’s Public Theater this past weekend and I was eager to see how Hong Kong audiences would process the gladiatorial spectacle. Particularly as Hong Kong itself galvanizes for the election of its next Chief Executive, in the wake of massive public protests and political scandal after scandal.
Hence my surprise upon meeting these Gabriels in the intimate black box of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre that had been transformed into their homey kitchen in the sleepy town of Rhinebeck in upstate New York. A more polite, mild-mannered, politically aligned bunch would be hard to find on or off stage. They are constantly asking each other “are you okay?” and “how can I help?” and falling over each other to check on their elderly mother in the next room. They are thoughtful in-laws, loving parents, model citizens.
They are also a family in mourning: we first encounter them on the day they’ve scattered the ashes of their recently deceased brother/husband/son, playwright and novelist Thomas Gabriel, in the Hudson River. In the eight-month span of these three plays, this tight-knit tribe gathers to prepare three dinners, and the aroma of chopped onions, fresh parsley, ratatouille simmering on the stove, apple crisp baking in the oven provides psychic nourishment. So does the masterful ensemble performance. Taking in the three plays back-to-back on one day (though you did have the option to see them on separate days) lulls one into the hypnotic rhythms of the family kitchen. Insight into the Gabriel family circumstances is dispensed at an unhurried pace over the course of the three plays, embedded in exchanges over whether to lay down a tablecloth or placemats, and in readings from Thomas Gabriel’s notebooks, old magazines and cookbooks.
All these small details are meant to fuse into a pointillist rendering of a quiet middle class despair but they never fully coalesce. The blueprint calls to mind Horton Foote’s epic Orphans’ Home Cycle – a series of nine plays conceived in the mid 1970’s, which loosely traced the lives of the playwright’s ancestors in early 20th century, small-town Texas. Not much seemed to happen in the plays, but the fallout from momentous events (the Depression; the flu pandemic) wove its way into the small talk, the minutiae of daily life and the ritualistic tallying of connections between distant family members. Family clung to relationships in the face of upheaval in 1918 Harrison, Texas, as they do in 2016 Rhinebeck.
The Gabriels are members of that vast middle class who are struggling to stay in the middle class; the forces that buffet them have transformed Rhinebeck into a weekend playground for rich Manhattanites. Thomas’ widow and third wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), has delegated to his first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), the task of sorting through memorabilia to see if there is anything worth selling. The family, we learn, are being forced to sell their mother’s home to pay off debts she incurred as the victim of a mortgage scam. They can barely afford to keep her in assisted living, and one of her daughters-in-law, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), must now work part-time as a maid in order to help pay the bills.
It is this narrative element that resonates most strongly – the influx of the weekender class who don’t treat the local people well. “We fix up their houses, build their furniture, make them comfortable” but as Thomas’ brother George (Jay O. Sanders), who teaches piano and makes furniture, notes ruefully, “rich people don’t pay well.” That strata happens to include the Clintons, whose daughter Chelsea was recently married at the former Astor estate. (“When did the rich become Democrats?” muses George.) The Gabriels express the ambivalence of a nation over the Clinton foibles, and their excitement over the prospect of the first woman president.
Despite the rich material, the writing occasionally seemed like a work in progress, a series of signposts. One barely-sketched-in descant linking the Lewinsky scandal to the American mortgage crisis had the potential to be both funny and scathing, but it stumbled over an attempt to explain the historic importance of the Glass-Steagall Act and never recovered. Snippets of the Ladies Home Journal and lengthy obsessions with recipes from an old Betty Crocker cookbook could not fill the void.
We bid the family farewell on election night, as they debate the necessity of driving their frail mother to the polls. Hillary Clinton, as they all know, is a shoe-in (“the other is unthinkable.”) We in the audience cannot help but feel dismay at what lies ahead for these decent, trusting Gabriels.