' ' Cinema Romantico: What Do We Need to Talk About?

Monday, May 25, 2020

What Do We Need to Talk About?

-“We don’t just vanish.”
-“Are you sure about that?”

When I arrived home on March 11, I did what I have done nearly every night in mid-March for 30 years – put NCAA Basketball on the television. If the ACC Tournament ersatz showdown between North Carolina and Syracuse would have been meaningless in the best of times, it was rendered that much more meaningless in the worst of times, which is what that Wednesday proved to be. You lived through it too and so you do not require a refresher, but as the news rolled in, growing worse with every refresh of my phone, that game got smaller and smaller until, figuratively speaking, I could not even see it anymore. For the first time in my life, I palpably sensed life as I knew and lived it disappearing all around me.

Richard Nelson’s new play “What Do We Need to Talk About?” is part of his Apple Family Cycle, staged from 2010 to 2013, about four siblings, three sisters and a brother, in Rhinebeck, New York. The aim, according to Nelson, has always been intimacy, meaning that in our COVID-19 time this 2020 update translates smoothly to Zoom. That is the suddenly trendy video conferencing platform through which Nelson staged this spur of the moment, if still thought out, production, bringing the siblings – Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Richard (Jay O. Sanders), Marian (Laila Robbins), Jane (Sally Murphy), and Jane’s partner Tim (Stephen Kunken) – and their conversation to us through the form of an online chat, the characters together but cordoned off into their own separate screen. The recent “Parks and Recreation” special on NBC was told via Zoom too, though its goal was nothing more than acting as a warm blanket, like finding a favorite song on the radio, epitomized in how it ended with an all-cast sing-along. “What Do We Need to Talk About?” is something else altogether. It never prescribes, explains or even consoles. “It’s like floating,” Barbara says, living through this Pandemic, and that’s the sensation Nelson captures, an emotional and material interregnum.

Theater, after all, more so than its television or cinematic counterparts, is about the live – nay, living experience. That feels demonstrably true with “What Do We Need to Talk About?”, and not just because it was shown live on YouTube. No, Nelson’s play manifests the notion not just of art as a working through but the actors being alive in that moment. Tim laments the closure of his restaurant but, as a part-time actor, also laments the death of a friend in the NYC acting a scene, a friend we realize is the late, real-life Mark Blum, an astonishing moment, as if the play is truly eradicating any boundaries between what is fiction and what is real, as if the actors are truly working through his strange new world hand-in-hand with their characters.

This moment is doubly astonishing, however, because it essentially pierces the play’s bubble, not just commenting on reality but bringing it into direct contact with reality. Right now, in the cultural discourse, much of it online, even in reviews of the play itself, people are hashing out whether art in this moment should merely be about taking us out of our suddenly strange lives or addressing the sudden strangeness of our lives. “What Do We Need to Talk About?”, as the title implies, is having that conversation with itself. The Zoom conversation centers on each character telling a story, frequently circling back around to art, with Barbara, an English teacher, putting the whole exercise into words by expounding on Boccaccio’s 14th Century The Decameron as being about “people telling each other stories while they wait out a plague.” Later, the play momentarily stops just to listen to Bach, music taking them (us) away. Yet after Jane’s turn entertaining the group, Barbara says “As you told that story, Jane, I did not once think about a pandemic,” effectively reminding us that once the story or the play or the music is over, reality rears its ugly head.

That reality is inherent in the play’s conveyance. The Zoom structure is at once invasive and just the way it is. The actors feel right at home, looking and acting like anyone I’ve had a Zoom call with the last couple months, though the very fact that Tim is self-isolating from Jane in a different room, the two of them communicating through the closed door, evokes how none of this is normal at all and that none of us know what is coming next. Marian’s story about their father’s mysterious brother, Paul, who up and vanished when he was young, “like he was wiped off the face of the Earth.” Where did he go? That is up for debate, and she speaks of Internet sleuthing to try and find him to no avail, the answer to the question arduous rather than conveniently expeditious.

Near the end, Jane mentions how her son’s girlfriend described the experience: “It feels like the world is ending just as we are arriving.” No one really says anything in response, no platitudinous mumbo jumbo about how she still has her whole life ahead of her, because no one really knows what to say. It feels as refreshing as it does frightening, a refusal to stoop to the level of American brands advertising our ostensible unity into oblivion and an acknowledgment of a sudden blank spot in our modern map.

“We don’t just vanish”, Marian says of their father’s brother. “Are you sure about that?” asks Richard. She chuckles. They all do. But the way Sanders says that line...man, it stuck with me, especially in a time where losing a loved one without the opportunity to say goodbye has become scarily prevalent. Zoom might be timely comic fodder, but in that moment Sanders makes it sound like they are sitting around a campfire, telling ghost stories. The play ends with everyone signing off, one by one, until only Barbara is left, looking into the camera, as if she is trying to square with what she sees, whether it’s real, whether this is all really happening. Then she ends the call and the screen goes black. She just vanishes.

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