Pictures from home is well-acted but out of focus.
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
You can almost hear the audience sigh the first time Danny Burstein walks downstage and addresses the audience. “Oh, it’s going to be one of those plays,” you can almost hear them collectively saying. Yes, it is.
“Pictures from Home” by Sharr White is a play that’s all about telling us what’s happening, rather than engaging us in a story. The larger question, however, is who is Larry talking to, and why should we even be interested? If it’s just to dive once again into familial dysfunction, more interesting subjects abound.
The play is based on a photo memoir by Larry Sultan, which was apparently quite successful. It is about Sultan’s attempt to understand and interpret his parents’ life in their latter years through the lens of a camera. What might have worked on the page is tedious on the stage, when it’s not overwrought and sentimental. The effect is of rifling through that box of photographs you found that have been tossed in willy-nilly. In fact, that’s what Brustein as Larry tells us from the outset. He found a box covered with mouse turds in his parents’ garage, and that’s what set him off on his quest. It’s a pretty pedestrian quest, when it comes down to it, and Larry is no Odysseus, Gilgamesh, or even Frodo, for that matter.
Rather, for all that can be determined, Larry is the child of middle class, white privilege whose parents made sacrifices to raise their children in comfort, but Larry is emotionally hobbled by his need for more love, or fear of death, or some such; it’s not clear. He seeks meaning in the photographs that aren’t necessarily there, a backstory or some such, or his own projections of his neuroses. Like a mediocre literature student, or a self-justifying art critic, he strains to ascribe deeper, darker meaning to something as simple as a home movie of a father teaching a child to use a hula hoop. That’s always more about the observer than the art, and in this case, Larry is tiresome, at best.
His father, Irving, seems to agree. Irving was a successful salesman who was put out to pasture by the corporation he had given years to, and he just wants to enjoy his retirement. After Irving was let go, his wife and Larry’s mother, Jean, became a successful real estate agent. At the time of the play, Irving and Jean want to move to Palm Springs to enjoy their retirement. Larry, however, sees that as capitulating at least spiritually and his parents are giving up on life, about rot until they die. (Turns out they love it there. Big shock.) At several points in the play, one just wants to roll the eyes and say to Larry, “For pity’s sake, just leave them alone to live their lives as they see fit. These are issues for your therapist.” Still Irving, in what can only be interpreted as love, tolerates this project, and Jean runs interference when things get testy.
White is trying to make the point that we all interpret life through our own literal and emotional lenses, but it is neither a very original nor profound observation. These are very average people having average lives, and while there’s no shame in that, and one can even admire what they’ve done to get through life; they’re not particularly interesting as dramatic figures. Moreover, from a dramaturgical perspective, when the sledding gets heavy, Sharr defaults to facile comedy or mawkish sentimentality, neither of which are very effective.
Finally, when we realize that the characters are all dead, it becomes clear that this is a memory play, but the trope is trumped by the fact that dead people have no memories that we know of, so what’s the point?
The cast is what saves this play. The three Broadway veterans, stars in their own right, light up the stage and work seamlessly together. Nathan Lane as Irving is a kind of every-dad who, having devoted himself to his family now wants a little time to relax and enjoy himself while he still can. He also can’t deny his son something that son evidently needs. As always, Lane infuses the role with complexity and honesty, which makes Irving appealing and sympathetic. Zoe Wanamaker as Jean is the archetypal female bedrock of the family, putting up with the quips and quiddities that fly between Irving and Larry. (Her costumes by Jennifer Moeller are pretty much perfect for her character as well.) Danny Burstein brings his usual verve and star presence to the role of Larry, but the character is ultimately too mired in his arrested development to evoke anything but the most superficial sympathy.
Ultimately, one is reminded of Robert Anderson’s arguably much better play, “I Never Sang for My Father,” which includes the observation “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.” Ironically, here there are no survivors to struggle, leaving all that in the audience’s lap, so to speak, and after sorting through all these photos, the result is a net negative.
Pictures from Home
254 West 54th Street
Tues, Weds, Thurs 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m.
Tickets online here.
Photos by Juliet Cervantes.
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