That Hopey Changey Thing
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 2, 2010
There are two plays meshed together in Richard Nelson's That Hopey Changey Thing, a presentation of the Public Theater's LAB series. The first is a funny, rather touching meditation on family and memory. The second is about politics.
Hopey Changey, a title derived from a Sarah Palin quote, is set between the hours of 7 and 9 p.m. on November 2, 2010, in Rhinebeck, New York. For those of us who saw the play on this day and between those hours, it was very meta. I suppose that the meta quality won't mean anything to anyone who sees it on November 4, and lines like the opening "Fuck you Andrew Cuomo!" will suddenly seem old. For the record, Nelson, who also directed, addresses this in his program notes, admitting that the play will soon become out of date.
We are gathered in the dining room of the highly political Apple family. Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a retired actor with amnesia after a heart attack, has recently had to put his dog down. The ceremonial "bringing him a new one" is the perfect time for a family sit-down. And it happens to be Election Night. Uncle Benjamin essentially raised the family members that have rallied to support him, his nieces Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Marian (Laila Robins), and Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), and his nephew, Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer in the State Attorney General's office. There's also a non-relative, Jane's actor boyfriend, Tim (Shuler Hensley).
Were this just a play about family, how they collectively reminisce about their childhood trips, their upbringing, why their father left them, as they try to jog their uncle's memory, it would have been far more enjoyable. Nelson's dialogue is very charming (though none of it sounds particularly natural) and the acting is meticulous. DeVries, Plunkett, Robins, Smith-Cameron, and Sanders are very believable as a family, and Hensley, the outsider, seems to fit right in.
But then they start discussing politics. The nice little family play comes to a grinding halt for a very large chunk in favor of discussions that include, but aren't limited to "Did the world pick on Sarah Palin from the moment John McCain chose her to be his running mate?," "Is Barack Obama an effective president?," "Did Michael Bloomberg buy that extra term?"
You could almost hear Nelson ticking each one off the list. It's not about whether you agree or disagree, though Richard, an erstwhile Republican, raises some thought-provoking points that will no doubt make the more liberal audience members seethe. It's that nothing new is added to the world's dialogue. The characters are just repeating things that have been said ad nauseum since Palin was chosen as McCain's running mate, since Obama won election, and since Bloomberg won the third term.
It's hard not to wish that Nelson chose solely to focus on the family's story. There's a great twist that is quasi-answered with a reading from, of all things, The Cherry Orchard (Uncle Benjamin was in a production before his heart attack). That Hopey Changey Thing could have been a lot more interesting.