‘Pictures From Home’ Broadway Review: Nathan Lane Doesn’t Sing but Acts Up a Storm

Based on Larry Sultan’s acclaimed photo memoir, Sharr White’s new play delivers laughs amid the schmaltz

Danny Burstein and Nathan Lane in Pictures From Home Broadway by Julieta Cervantes
Julieta Cervantes

Neil Simon meets Arthur Miller in Sharr White’s play “Pictures From Home,” which received its world premiere Thursday at Broadway’s Studio 54.

Early in White’s dramedy, long before we learn that the retired salesman Irving Sultan spent most of his time on the road being unfaithful to his wife (this is the Miller part), Irving and his son Larry indulge in epic battles over whether or not to be photographed. These sometimes funny and always loud verbal brawls recall those moments in Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” when the talent agent Ben tries to get his uncle Willie to reunite onstage with Al, his old and much-despised vaudeville partner. Or to think of it another way, imagine “The Odd Couple” if Oscar were really Felix’s father. Or Felix were Oscar’s father.

What gives all this boisterous comedy a heavy patina of high-mindedness is its source material. White’s play is based on Larry Sultan’s photo memoir “Pictures From Home,” which was published to great acclaim in 1992. In it, Sultan mixed vintage family album photos with highly choreographed ones he took of his parents over an eight-year period in the 1980s. According to playwright White, the photographer wanted to examine the emptiness of the American Dream during the Reagan years. (Yes, at the top of the play, our first Orange President gets stuck with most of the blame.)

Sultan took literally thousands and thousands of photos of his parents, Irving and Jean. From what transpires onstage at Studio 54, it’s a wonder he was able to use up even one roll of Kodak.

Irving (Nathan Lane) bickers constantly with Larry (Danny Burstein) about the stupidity of his photo “project” and the “dishonesty” of it all, because he and Jean (Zoë Wanamaker) are not victims of rampant capitalism but a happily married couple on the verge of blissful retirement. When Irving is not bitching about having his photo taken, he complains about Larry showing up at the wrong airline terminal or putting onions in the hamburger patties when Larry should be using Worcestershire sauce instead. What doesn’t happen in “Pictures From Home” is much picture-taking, despite Burstein often holding a camera, exasperated that his parents are such difficult subjects.

This 110-minute one-act, directed by Bartlett Sher, uses Sultan’s original photographs, which are projected on the walls of Michael Yeargan’s living room set, which, at one point, effectively morphs into a desert landscape. (Irving and Jean eventually left Los Angeles to retire in Palm Desert.) In one photograph, she is shown unpacking groceries in front of her husband, who is seated at the kitchen table. Apparently, Larry directed his mother to repeat her unpacking duties several times before getting the exact right shot.

In other words, the real Larry Sultan was no documentarian. Which is fine. But why doesn’t White replicate one of these photo sessions onstage? Did the real Jean Sultan unpack and repack the iceberg lettuce (romaine or butterhead would have been too upper-class) a dozen times before she conveyed the right amount of angst or ennui at being exploited by her wifely duties? More significant, did the real Irving Sultan kvetch between every shot?

The book “Pictures From Home” shows Irving and Jean to be extremely willing subjects. The play “Pictures From Home” tells an entirely different story, perhaps because taking photos is not a very dramatic subject. Arguing about onions versus Worcestershire is much more fun. The exact size of those hamburger patties also gets the full stand-up comedy treatment, as does Terminal A vs. Terminal B at LAX. It is precisely the kind of mundane minutiae that made Neil Simon’s comedies so popular in the 1960s and ’70s – and why those plays have dated so badly. In an age of climate change and annual pandemics, jokes about the size of zucchini (Irving was also an avid gardener) seem lame.

Downright dishonest is White and Lane’s portrayal of Irving Sultan. In the photos, he exudes patrician reticence and male vanity. For a man in his 70s, Irving took his shirt off a lot to be photographed. Lane never removes his shirt, and his emphatic Borscht Belt delivery radically oversells White’s material.

Early in the play, Lane’s Irving delivers a speech about having to change his last name from Sultan to Sutton to get a job, to hide his Jewish heritage. Larry Sultan’s photos of his father show a man who gave up much more than his name. In these photos, Irving is elegant, poised if not posed, tightly wound, very restrained.

Lane takes another approach. His energy is that of Max Bialystock without the songs. It’s the opposite of restrained. And unfortunately, under Sher’s blunt direction, Burstein matches his costar’s decibel level — and then some. Was the real Larry Sultan so weepy and sentimental in his memory of Mom and Dad? His photography shows a cold, analytical approach.

Wanamaker manages to keep her distance to let the men fight it out over who gets the most guffaws. She is a portrait of reserve amid a storm of schmaltz.