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Review: Incidental Moments of the Day (New York)

Richard Nelson's pandemic trilogy comes to a close

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Incidental Moments of the Day
© Jason Ardizzone-West

There will probably be deeper and more consciously meaningful plays written about the Covid crisis than Richard Nelson's pandemic trilogy featuring his fictional Apple family. But I doubt there will be any more instantly reflective of the strange, shifting times we are living through – or more full of love.

This is the final play of three which have been screened digitally via Zoom, gathering 100,000 views since their first transmission four months ago. Like the first What Do We Need to Talk About and the second And So We Come Forth, this 70-minute drama (available until Nov 5) takes the form of a family Zoom get-together for three sisters, their brother and one sister's boyfriend. Like the others, it is an hour in which very little seems to happen. But by the end, we understand infinitely more about events around us and our own lives.

In her introduction, Nelson's long-time lighting designer and friend Jennifer Tipton quotes Harvey Granville Barker. "Dramatic art, theatre, is the working out in terms of make-believe of society itself." That is precisely what Nelson does. Working with actors who are so ingrained in their art that they seem to become the people they portray, he presents a slice of life. But his shaping of it, helps to explain and interpret our world.

The actual title of this drama is taken from Pierre Bonnard's description of what he drew and, like many other references to art and literature, forms part of the fabric of the play. The Apples are a literary lot, with drama running through their veins: by making them spring from a particular, liberal set in upstate New York – in Rhinebeck, where he himself lives – Nelson allows them to quote Chekhov and James Baldwin as if it is the most natural thing.

In this way, he winds into his examination of life under Covid and the great changes sweeping across US society, with an election on the way, a bigger, broader awareness of the sweep of history and its previous interpretations by great minds of the past. The dialogue swerves between the quotidian and the universal, granting them both the same significance.

So the conversation contains a wryly humorous description of one sister Marian (Laila Robins) going on a first date with a man with "cute eyebrows" – exciting, because as they eat he will finally remove his mask. "Did he have a nose?" her sisters tease. The family discuss the depression felt by sister Jane (Sally Murphy), made worse by isolation. But their chat also encompasses a history lesson about the crowds who greeted Lafayette, military hero of the Revolution, when he returned to America later in life – "maybe they were just feeling leaderless" – and a discussion of the seismic effect on white liberal thinking of the demands of the Black Lives Matter protests. "Being accused of racism is very scary."

Into the middle of it all, Nelson introduces an extraordinary moment. Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) has won a dance performance by her friend's daughter Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) in an auction: she shares it with her family via Zoom. There is, therefore, an extended period where we, the audience, watches the family as they play audience to the dance performance. "I needed that. I need a little art in my day," says Tim (Stephen Kunken).

Nothing is finally resolved, but many things are suggested in this allusive way. Over it all, Nelson casts an arc of family relationships, long established, full of feeling. The relationship between Barbara and her brother Richard (Jay O. Saunders) has become, as Jane points out, like an "old couple". Now he has found a girlfriend and Barbara faces the possibility of a lonely old age, and the cast – beyond impeccable- suggest the sadness of the inevitability of this with nothing more than half sentences and sidelong looks of sympathy.

The final word of the play is "love", sent across the digital void, from one sibling to another. Then there is a long moment of silence. Together they are the perfect summation of so many things. These are plays that would be great at any moment. To be able to watch them now, brings some much-needed art into our days.