Flatiron Hot! Critic – Theater Review: Richard Nelson's "Sorry"

Flatiron Hot! recently had the opportunity to attend Sorry, the third installment in a trilogy of plays by Richard Nelson, which also includes That Hopey Changy Thing and Sweet and Sad. The production bears all the hallmarks of solid off-Broadway theater. It is well-written, competently acted, and witty, replete with literary, poetic and dramatic references. The Public Theater, located on 425 Lafayette Street, is ideal for a production of this sort. Spare, intimate and unfussy in its layout, the historic venue hearkens back to a time when theater was about the rapport between actors and audience, not the indulgent sets and flashy effects that define modern Broadway.

Alas, no setting can redeem a production fundamentally lacking in substance. To its detriment, Sorry rarely bothers to delve beyond its narrow worldview, one that has already been thoroughly explored in works across various mediums. Thus, Sorry never quite crosses that ambiguous, yet unmistakable line dividing art of its time from art that is timeless.

That being said, Sorry has its redeeming qualities. There is a certain vicarious thrill to be had from watching the play’s characters in action. The audience will likely find little bits of themselves in the members of the perpetually-troubled Apple family. For instance, how many liberals did not entertain (or at least claim to entertain) the notion of moving to Canada in the event of a 2012 Romney victory?

Nevertheless, the best drama does not portray a time and place just for the sake of it. Rather, it presents reality in a new or distinctive light, compelling audience members to rethink long-accepted conventional wisdom, rather than simply affirming it.

This is not to say that high-quality drama has an obligation to preach or alter our firmly held convictions. On the contrary, attempting to do so can come across as overbearing. Even some of the greatest playwrights descend into polemics, including Athol Fugard in his recent production of The Traindriver.

But still, it is better to overreach than to have no ambitions at all. While Sorry is not entirely lacking in substance, it seems more concerned with courting our sympathies than truly delving beneath the surface of our worldview. Nelson uses the 2012 presidential election, in particular, and U.S. political history, in general, purely as a means to illuminate character.

This approach does not warrant criticism in and of itself. After all, what is politics if not an institutionalized reflection of human nature? Unfortunately, the political and character elements in Sorry clash when they should reinforce each other. Setting the play on election’s eve brings up interesting thematic possibilities, but Nelson does not seem much interested in exploring them. Really, the play could take place any night of the year.

This because, political allusions aside, Sorry is first and foremost a character study. The play’s central conflict revolves around the tried-and-true human dilemma of placing a loved one no longer capable of self-sufficiency into an assisted living facility.

Watching the Apple family tear itself apart over the momentous decision of whether to commit senile old uncle Benjamin (Jon Devries) provokes a certain obligatory sympathy, of the kind experienced when watching fundraising commercials filled with images of abused animals or starving children.

Part of the problem is that Nelson fails to offer much new in the way of characterization. Barbara falls into the stereotypical role of the dutiful caretaker who avoids confronting a lack of direction and satisfaction in her own life by devoting herself entirely to caring for an impaired relative.

Richard (Jay O. Sanders) – the play’s most interesting character, if only because he occasionally disrupts the predictable proceedings with wacky, out-of-left-field anecdotes – is the tactless voice of reason, insisting that putting away Uncle Benjamin is for the best.

The remaining siblings, sisters Marian (Laila Robins) and Jane (J. Smith-Cameron) are not particularly memorable, coming across more as mouthpieces for Nelson to explore topics of interest (literature and education) than full-fledged characters.

Apparently, both women were dealt with more extensively in Sorry’s prequels but that alone does not justify their presence in a production that claims to stand on its own. A few references to the characters’ past travails are not sufficient to create fully fleshed-out characters.

In the end, Sorry finds some redemption in its cast. The actors successfully imbue the members of the Apple family with blood and realism, even as Nelson’s script meanders from one loosely-connected scenario to another. Still, in the end, it is difficult to view Sorry as more than an exercise in liberal navel gazing.

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