Over the last decade, playwright Richard Nelson has composed nearly a dozen plays set in Rhinebeck, New York, an exurban oasis a couple hours north of New York City, often centering on two families of schoolteachers and bureaucrats and artists named the Apples and the Gabriels. These are Chekhovian snapshots of domestic life that are mostly unburdened of both plot and artifice, unfolding in a version of real-time with conversation around a dining room table.
For his new play, “What Happened? The Michaels Abroad,” which opened on Wednesday at Hunter Theater Project’s Frederick Loewe Theatre, Nelson and his troupe of acting regulars leave Rhinebeck for the French equivalent — Angers, France, two hours west of Paris by train and the home of a major dance school, Centre National de Danse Contemporaire.
Here we revisit many of the characters introduced two years ago in Nelson’s play “The Michaels” at the Public Theater, though its central figure, a renowned choreogrpaher named Rose Michael, has passed away — not to the cancer she was battling in the last play but to COVID. Her late-in-life lover, Kate (Maryann Plunkett), has arrived jet-lagged in Angers with some of Rose’s former dance-company colleagues, as well as her business manager and former husband, David (Jay O. Sanders). They’re there to see Rose and David’s daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), who’s been studying in Angers for a pandemic-extended period and is due to perform some homages to her mother’s work at a festival.
As with most Nelson plays, though, plot is secondary to the revelation of character through the stops and starts of conversation — and to the art and craft of storytelling itself. There is drama, of a sort, when David informs Lucy of plans to sell her mom’s house — and how her inheritance won’t be quite as much as expected given all the credit card debt that nobody quite realized Rose had accumulated. Lucy takes umbrage when she learns that the buyers, who are about her age, may tear it down and put in a swimming pool. “But there’s a f—ing lake!” she exclaims, the first and only time anybody raises their voice during the entire show.
There’s also action, mostly in the form of short dances performed by Lucy and her cousin May (Matilda Sakamoto), who came to Angers a few months earlier. The dancing is lovely, though the routines and the music choices (“Miss Otis Regrets”?) would have seemed old-fashioned even when Rose was supposedly making her reputation in the 1970s and ’80s. (Gwyneth Jones served as dance consultant.)
And there are smells — like the aroma of a cauliflower lasagna that one character prepares and bakes right on stage, and that the cast all share along with story after story after story to help make sense of their lives and their art. As playwright and director, Nelson is a master of the quotidian. And in the end, he gives the takeaway message to retired schoolteacher Kate — the outsider in this group of active and retired dancers and artists, the one who has never before been to Europe. Kate recalls the story of a peasant who never left her village but who is not pitied “because in this story it shows that so much of the world, maybe even all of it, we can find, say, over a meal, or with simplest of routines, the subtlest of gestures.”