George Balanchine famously said, “In ballet a complicated story is impossible to tell…. We can’t dance synonyms.” He also put it another way, “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Rose, the dying choreographer at the center of Richard Nelson’s new drama “The Michaels,” doesn’t mention Balanchine, but it’s clear from everything she tells us that she hates his concept of dance. In fact, she hates ballet and all its “positions.”
Nelson’s new play, whose full title is “The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times,” opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, and it continues his Rhinebeck, New York, series of plays. It’s preceded by the four in “The Apple Family Plays” and the three in “The Gabriels.”
The plot of “The Michaels” centers on Rose (Brenda Wehle) and a major dance commission that she loses due to her stage-four ovarian cancer. Surrounded by friends and family, Rose is asked to describe what the dance would have been, and before everyone sits down to dinner, she tells the story of a young girl who sacrifices herself to Death so that her father-in-law can live. Hercules also figures into this dance tale. Complicated doesn’t begin to describe it.
Rose is contrarian enough that she probably put the father-in-law character into her unlikely-to-be-realized commission just to prove Balanchine wrong. Fortunately, Nelson never gives us any choreography from this Hercules/Death/father-in-law work, but no doubt it might appear in one of his dinner dramas to come.
“The Michaels” is replete with ghastly sounding nights not only in the theater but at the movies. Rose’s ex-husband, David (Jay O. Sanders), just came back from overseas where he saw yet another Trump-inspired stage drama, this one featuring a Kermit the Frog character. He also thinks further back to a movie he saw long ago in which nothing much happened. Rose turned it into a five-hour dance that ended with only three people left in the audience. Also mentioned is a dance Rose wants to choreograph about women who kill their husbands and are sentenced by the gods to perform mundane tasks like cooking, doing laundry and filling jugs with water.
The concept for this dance impresses Irenie (Haviland Morris), a dinner guest who’s a former member of Rose’s dance company. Irenie believes that it has been inspired by Kate (Maryann Plunkett), Rose’s brand-new caretaker and partner, who cooks, cleans and runs the faucet to clean the vegetables.
Kate makes quiche and a salad for everyone. Other guests include David’s current wife, Sally (Rita Wolf), who also used to be in Rose’s company, and two young dancers: Rose’s daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), and Rose’s niece, May (Matilda Sakamoto). Lucy and May go for a walk rather than eat Kate’s quiche and salad, but not before they get a chance to perform three dances choreographed by Rose years ago. Lucy and May are planning a big retrospective of Rose’s career.
This choreography is not original to the “Michaels” production. Rather, the dances are “based on original choreography by Dan Wagoner,” who danced in the Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham companies. As presented here, these dances don’t say much for Rose’s talent and they certainly don’t enhance Wagoner’s reputation as a choreographer. Then again, it’s doubtful they were intended to be performed around a kitchen table on a moment’s notice.
It’s difficult to imagine the dour Rose ever being married to the ebullient David, except that he’s an arts manager and producer. Was Rose using him simply to get her dances staged? Is Rose now using Kate as death approaches? The two women have known each other for only two months.
As usual, Nelson directs his own play. His approach is minimal and naturalistic. The actors’ voices never rise above the conversational. They don’t seem to perform. Rather, they simply are, and Sanders, Plunkett, and Morris carry off this illusion magnificently.
“The Michaels” does not perform precisely in real time. The time is given as “Sunday, October 27, 2019. Approximately 6 – 9 p.m.” (In a nod to topicality, there is a brief reference to the Sunday death of ISIS leader Abu Akbr al-Baghdadi.) At a running time of two hours, the play loses about an hour due to black-outs between scenes. A suspense of sorts does emerge. There’s a palpable sense of history among this group. Often, some person is mentioned but never explained to us or, more important, to Kate. How long can she put up with being the outsider? You will identify.
“The Michaels” also proves another thing: Balanchine was right about dance not having in-laws.