There is so much they all want — no need — to say. They have always been a family for whom conversation is as essential as oxygen, a means of defining and confirming their own identities in relation to one another and to the wide, heaving world that keeps shifting beyond and beneath them.
Yet like every American in the late summer of 2020, the small, hope-hungry group of people at the center of “Incidental Moments of the Day,” Richard Nelson’s truly profound new streaming play, is trapped in a moment of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty. It’s a time when saying anything can be dangerous, and words can become unwitting self-harming weapons.
No, talking these days is nowhere near as easy as it used to be for the upstate New York clan known as the Apple family, about whom Nelson has written seven remarkable plays. In the latest, and perhaps last, of that cycle, a crippling self-consciousness informs every syllable they utter. The Apples — whom I’ve known and loved for a decade now — have never seemed more awkward, or more unsettlingly sad.
“Incidental Moments of the Day,” which streamed live on YouTube on Thursday night and can be seen for free in its recorded version until Nov. 5, is the last of a trilogy of works written and directed by Nelson for the Zoom format, reflecting the way in which many people have found themselves communicating in the age of pandemic lockdown. When its main characters, the Apples, first showed up at the Public Theater in 2010, in a work called “That Hopey Changey Thing,” they inaugurated a new kind of town hall drama.
Set on the day on which they opened (always at the Public Theater in New York), the four plays showed the most troublesome issues of the day being discussed — and just as important, willfully avoided — by people whose everyday concerns were imbued by the larger context of American culture at that moment.
They and the similarly structured trilogy that followed — about another family, the Gabriels, who lived in the same town (and were embodied by the same exceptional actors) — were deceptively unassuming studies in the interpenetration of the personal and political in so-called ordinary lives. Though their names were mentioned infrequently, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump cast pervasive shadows in these plays.
With the advent of Covid-19, Nelson’s families, who customarily gathered around kitchen tables as if they were oases in a desert, were forced online. And Nelson turned communication by laptop into a consideration of the loneliness and longing to connect that many Americans were experiencing as they never had before.
In the first of these plays, “What Do We Need to Talk About?,” which debuted at the end of April, the Apples were grappling with the disorientation of existing in their separate realms of confinement (despite all living in the same town). The second installment, “And So We Come Forth,” first seen in early July, took place when the grip of lockdown seemed to be loosening, and racial collisions vied with the pandemic for headlines.
Though Black Lives Matter had become one of the most ubiquitous and potent phrases in the world, racial division and injustice were barely touched upon, a troubling omission for some critics, including my colleague Jesse Green. Yet for me, the sense of a cultural revolution, inchoate still but powerful, resonated in everything the Apples didn’t say in “And So We Come Forth.”
They were middle-aged, middle-class, small-town white people who had always thought of themselves as open-minded and progressive. But they also intuited that they might not be perceived that way in the new world that was taking shape without their assistance. The play was a portrait of people still hunkering down, and paralyzed not only by fear of a plague but of a changed society that might reject them.
In “Incidental Moments,” the strongest and deepest of the trilogy, the Apples have at last moved, fumblingly and hesitatingly, into the outside world. As the family’s latest Zoom confab begins, only the youngest of the Apple siblings, Jane (Sally Murphy), a writer struggling with depression and agoraphobia, is in her own apartment.
Her boyfriend, Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor, is temporarily at his childhood home in Amherst, Mass. Marian Apple (Laila Robins) is still in Rhinebeck but out on a date (her first since the pandemic began) and eager to see what lurks behind the face mask of the man who asked her out.
As for the oldest siblings, Richard and Barbara (Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, husband and wife in real life), they’re in Albany, dismantling the apartment he had kept there while he worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Richard is moving back to Rhinebeck, but into his own place, rather than back into Barbara’s house. He also has a new girlfriend.
Their familial cohesiveness is crumbling, and their relations to one another no longer feel as reassuringly fixed. This makes them more tentative and faltering in their conversation, and you can see them flinching when sensitive spots are unintentionally bruised. The Zoom lens becomes, in this instance, an emotional X-ray machine, and each of the superb cast members here is even more eloquent in silence than in speech.
The genius of “Incidental Moments” is in how it extends this social and verbal uneasiness within a family to embrace the most important and divisive subjects of the day. Barbara talks about a conversation with a fellow schoolteacher, who is starting to wonder, for the first time in her life, if she might be thought of as a racist.
Tim tells the story of a Canadian acting troupe that had to shut down a production about that nation’s Indigenous people because the cast, though multiracial, included no Indigenous actors. (Nelson appears to be thinking of the controversy around the Canadian theater artist Robert Lepage’s “Kanata” two years ago.) James Baldwin and the white South African playwright Athol Fugard are quoted (by Tim) on the matter of who has the right to tell what stories.
And Barbara feels, to her astonishment, that the world is shrinking. She says she once believed that she was “part of some great humanity.” Now, she continues, “it feels to me like we’re making it all smaller and smaller …. This is — yours, this is mine. These are the lines. These are the borders. The walls. Don’t cross them. Or cross them at your own risk …”
Plunkett, one of the great treasures of New York theater, delivers this speech not angrily but with a kind of bewildered mournfulness. Barbara says she misses humor in these somber days, and thinks it might be a good idea if they started telling one another jokes. And her bungling but self-delighted rendering of a silly joke has its own strange cathartic value.
There’s only one moment, though, in which everyone looks genuinely relaxed. That happens when a young woman named Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), now working in France, performs a dance from her apartment. (For the record, she’s a character from yet another Nelson Rhinebeck play, “The Michaels,” performed at the Public last year, and a character from “The Gabriels” is name-checked here, too.)
It’s a loopy little number, set to Scott Joplin, that finds the grace in slapstick awkwardness. For its short and sweet duration, everyone watching her smiles without strain. It feels right that a wordless piece of art offers the play’s characters their one full moment of blessed transcendence.
Incidental Moments of the Day
Available on YouTube and theapplefamilyplays.com through Nov. 5