Livesteam Theater Review: Richard Nelson’s ‘What Do We Need To Talk About?’ Stakes Claim As First Powerful Drama Of The Pandemic

What will theater look like after the pandemic? How will stage artists address the societal upheavals wreaked by COVID-19? Everyone’s asking, no one knows, but Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson and New York’s Public Theater offered up a much-needed and beautifully executed bit of hope last night with the era-suiting livestreamed world premiere of What Do We Need To Talk About?

The fifth and latest installment of writer-director Nelson’s series of dramas known collectively as the Apple Family Plays, What Do We Need… debuted Wednesday on YouTube and the Public’s website, picking up seven years after the last play, Regular Singing. While the first four installments were performed, with minimalist sets, as family dinner conversations on stage at the Public, What Do We Need… was presented entirely as a Zoom chat, with the homebound cast, performing live and in character, enacting the type of socially distanced get-together that has suddenly become an integral part of 21st Century living.

Reprising their roles as members of the close-knit, highly opinionated clan of intellectual New York Staters were Jay O. Sanders as Albany-based lawyer Richard, who’s back at his job with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (allowing for some very timely barbs); Maryann Plunkett as eldest sibling Barbara, recovering from a life-or-death battle with the coronavirus; Laila Robins (Showtime’s Homeland) as Marian, the middle sister still grieving the loss of her son; and Sally Murphy as the youngest sister, writer Jane, and Stephen Kunken as her partner, sometime actor Tim, their relationship coming under some strain as Jane copes with a near-crippling fear of the illness. In an audio-only appearance, Jon DeVries reprises his role as the siblings’ late Uncle Benjamin.

In keeping with the set-up of previous installments – each of which chronicled a family dinner that coincided with a particular moment in history, including 2010’s midterm elections, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the re-election of Barack Obama, and the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination – What Do We Need… finds the group connecting via Zoom as they cope with, and struggle to understand, the coronavirus pandemic. The mundane – grocery shopping, which turns out to be not so mundane after all – mixes with the deep as the family discusses their upturned lives, their losses and their plans.

Nelson, who won a Tony Award in 2000 for his book for the musical James Joyce’s The Dead, sidles up to these heavy topics in ways that seem to catch both audience and characters off-guard. Personal revelations small and not so small crop up in surprising ways, as they tend to do these days. Perhaps none hits with more force than the mention of actor Mark Blum, a real-life coronavirus victim whose touching inclusion here brings home, literally, the toll of this plague.

What Do We Need… arrives at its most clever and useful plot device well into the brisk 60-minute, intermission-free running time, when Nelson has each of the characters tell a tale, a nod to the brainy family’s fondness for Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a work, we’re reminded, made up of stories told by fictional characters amusing and distracting themselves during the Black Death. The Apples undertake a similar pastime, each sharing a brief story about something that’s caught her or his attention. One sister talks of discovering the fate of a now-forgotten female author, another of a long-hidden family secret, another of a particularly glorious piece of music that helped her through the fevers of our new plague. If there’s a better metaphor for the durability of theater and what storytelling has to offer in these or any times, let’s have it.

Nelson’s approach – the Zoom conceit, the head-on address of how the pandemic is re-shaping contemporary life – certainly isn’t an inexhaustible tactic for post-COVID theater, but if it does nothing else, it shows that the stage – now and always, in person or otherwise – embraces innovation, talent, wit and compassion. What Do We Need To Talk About? might be the first time-capsule piece of drama to emerge from these trying times, but it won’t be the last.

What Do We Need To Talk About? is available for viewing on YouTube and The Public Theater’s website until Sunday. The Public says it’s investigating ways to continue the streaming availability thereafter. In the New York metro area, public station WNET is streaming the four previous installments of the Apple Family saga.

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