The final play in Richard Nelson's pandemic-grounded trilogy, “Incidental Moments of the Day – The Apple Family: Life on Zoom," had its world premiere Sept. 10 on YouTube (unlimited access through Nov. 5). The 70-minute play had been eagerly awaited since the second installment debuted in July, but, in my opinion, “Incidental Moments” lacks the strength and poignancy of its predecessors.
Yes, things have changed six months into isolation for that stalwart Rhinebeck, New York, Apple family. Brother Richard has retired from the Cuomo administration and has a girlfriend named Yvonne. (You’ll never meet her, but she appears to be a chatterbox, story-rich actress.) Richard is in the process of moving from Albany back to Rhinebeck.
Sister Marian is dating, and she can’t wait to go out to eat with him, so she can see his full face (“he has nice eyebrows”). Jane now goes grocery shopping and is interested in becoming a crisis counselor; she successfully has pitched writing an article in the local paper about the Marquis de Lafayette returning to America after the Revolutionary War. Her partner Tim is in Amherst in his childhood home; he’s supervising two girls attending online college classes, while his mother is in a nursing home. We’re not clear whether or not he’ll be coming back to Jane and acting.
We’re also inexplicably introduced to a character named Lucy who’s in residency in France and is a former student of Barbara’s. Her sole purpose is to dance to “The Entertainer” in scene five and blow a kiss. Barbara has planned it all as a treat ("we need the arts”) for her Zooming family.
It’s not the ensemble’s fault. As always, they are exemplary in their characterizations.
Is it the writing? Or is it me? I expected a better goodbye to these characters and a stronger commentary on the day; sure there are allusions to Trump, Cuomo, racism, wearing masks, etc., but I’m not given much of a sense that any of these really affect the Apples. They are cocooned in the Hudson Valley, in isolation to be sure, but they are a loving family connected.
Maryann Plunkett’s Barbara is the solid retired teacher, afraid she’ll be alone but pretending it hasn’t crossed her mind. She gets to deliver the poignant lines of her deceased uncle Ben, "allow us to say it’s hard for us to live even in a whisper,” and the riddle that as she grew older, the world didn’t get bigger as she believed it would but just got smaller with lines and walls.
Jay O. Sanders’ Richard seems happiest, content and excited about the future. Sally Murphy’s Jane is given much more material to work with and develop this time around; she relays a dream about no longer being able to have color in her life except on her birthday. Stephen Kunken’s Tim gives us a strong interpretation of internal strife and anxiety and delivers a James Baldwin quote he finds in an old college book at his childhood home: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” (Subtle, Mr. Nelson.)
Disappointingly, Laila Robins’ Marian is given short, almost nonexistent time on screen. She appears almost at the end of the play; back from her date, she gives a brief summary and announces she’s going to go change, so she can go to Jane’s house, and we don’t see her again. The newly added character, Lucy, is a showcase for a talented dancer, Charlotte Bydwell, but isn’t essential for this play, other than to provide a diverting entertainment. Maybe to disrupt the ho-hum of quarantine.
I’m sad to see the Apples go; I thank Nelson for showing us a family who stayed connected and represented how we feel in and about this pandemic, and how we are living right now. Understandably, Nelson’s trilogy has had an international reach with responses from 30 countries around the world. He himself stated, “Theater-making is a universal art, and theater itself has no borders.”
Perhaps the Apples have served as a mirror for our current society. The simple ending dialogue between Jane and Barbara rings with hope and fear: “Are you going to be alright?” “Are you?” Maybe the ending is unfinished and raw. Or abrupt. And maybe that’s what director and playwright Nelson intended, like the pandemic. We just don’t know.
[The show is free, with donations welcomed to benefit Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation in the U.S. and the Theatre Artists Fund in the UK.]
• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with theater since the first grade in countless productions throughout Illinois, Ohio and upstate New York. She eagerly awaits the return of what she loves to do best: act, direct, teach, travel overseas with her husband, and attend live theater.
IF YOU VIEW
WHAT: “Incidental Moments of the Day – The Apple Family: Life on Zoom"
WHEN: Through Nov. 5
COST: Streaming free on YouTube; donations welcome