‘What Do We Need to Talk About?’ Theater Review: Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Thrives in Quarantine

With the Public Theater closed, Nelson’s middle-aged, left-leaning siblings gather via Zoom

what do we need to talk about richard nelson apple family
Courtesy of the Public Theater

Richard Nelson’s Apple Family has reunited during the coronavirus pandemic — not around the dinner table, as usual, but via Zoom chat from their separate quarantined homes. And it’s a pleasure to be in their company again for Nelson’s new one-hour play, “What Do We Need to Talk About?” which was livestreamed Wednesday night on The Public Theater’s YouTube page (and will continue to be available through May 3).

The liberal-leaning family of three sisters and one brother from Rhinebeck, N.Y., was introduced in Nelson’s 2010 midterm election-set drama “That Hopey Changey Thing” and then reappeared on annual occasions (the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 election night and the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination in 2013) in talky, minimalist Public Theater productions that Nelson directed himself. (All four earlier Apple Family Plays are currently streaming for free in the New York area on WNET.)

In more recent plays, Nelson moved on to two other well-educated, kindhearted clans also from the Rhinebeck community located about a two-hour drive north of New York City — whose members were often played, somewhat confusingly, by the same core group of actors from the Apple Family plays.

Now Nelson has returned to the Apples, as Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer for the state of New York, has moved back in with his high school history teacher sister Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), who has just been released from the hospital after a scary, life-threatening case of COVID-19. Their elementary-school teacher sister Marian (Laila Robins) is still nursing the death of her grown daughter, while writer Jane (Sally Murphy) pops up in a separate window from her live-in boyfriend, Tim (Stephen Kunken), an actor-turned-restaurant manager who has tested positive himself and therefore quarantined in his own room.

In many ways, there’s nothing remarkably dramatic about the Apples — but Nelson captures the ways in which mild-mannered, good-natured people can bicker and get under each other’s skins without ever raising their voice. “You always said you were worried about being smothered by your sisters,” one sister tells Richard, to which he tries to insist, “I never said that.” His sisters, in turn, insist, “You definitely did.” And Barbara offers the coup de grace: “In this very house.”

Nelson’s brood takes great pleasure in storytelling, and Barbara prompts the siblings to share their own yarns while recalling how the 14th-century classic “The Decameron” was composed during the Black Death pandemic to distract a population stuck in quarantine. And the Apples spin some wonderful, discursive yarns — while also fretting about contemporary concerns like “senior hours” at grocery stores, the death of Broadway actor Mark Blum and even the future of live theater. (“The first cough from the audience and who’s listening to the play?” Richard wonders aloud.)

And while the Public Theater remains closed for the foreseeable future, it’s inspiring to see theater artists adapting to the challenges and constraints to produce vibrant new works in any way they can. Even theater can survive the pandemic.