The luminous play Hungry that just opened at the Public Theater is the first in playwright Richard Nelson’s trilogy The Gabriels: Election Year In the Life of One Family.
The play doesn’t initially seem to be about politics. A family has gathered in a kitchen in upstate New York to memorialize Thomas Gabriel, who died a few months earlier of Parkinson’s disease.
After spreading his ashes in the Hudson River, his wife is baking bread and his brother and sister and a couple of other family members are with her, talking, chopping, and telling stories.
But if you want to understand the forces driving the current presidential election, pay close attention to this play.
Nelson admits to being a bit of a political junkie. “I watch everything: CNN, MSNBC, FOX, The News Hour, BBC, France 4, the networks, local, NY1,” he says. “ I read The Times and The Guardian every day, and check in with The Washington Post.” He also has a long list of online sites he checks.
Equally important, Nelson listens to people on the commuter train and walking on the street. What he’s figured out is that for most people, politics is interwoven with personal issues.
“Politics is just one way of tracking common ground with the audience,” says Nelson. “Very few of us separate politics from our daily lives and specific needs.”
People are mostly worried about family, work, friendships, and children, and bigger social and political themes are just part of that.
In Hungry, when one character mentions that her son Paulie “keeps saying, ‘feel the Bern, Mom’ the rest of them don’t debate Bernie Sanders’ policies. Instead her sister-in-law says, “I just realized what you’re saying—Paulie can now vote! My god, I am so fucking old.”
Nelson thinks people regularly have these kinds of interwoven conversations but they’re simply not expressed in media or popular culture.
“Instead, we see argument, people taking stands and trying to win. I found this dehumanized everything, and my interest was to find the human again,” he says.
Nelson is writing (or at least revising) the trilogy in real time—he put the finishing touches on Hungry the afternoon it premiered—and there’s not another playwright or TV analyst who seems to understand people’s conversations and concerns quite as well.
The Gabriels could be any middle class American family with good liberal values who, from their political perspective, can’t understand what they see as the madness currently gripping the electorate.
Thomas’ first wife Karin (yes, everybody gets along) wonders what would happen “if our side were to fall apart for some reason. Think about that. It’s possible. Maybe very possible. Think what we would be left with. It’s hard to fathom.”
Nelson never mentions Donald Trump directly, but everyone in the audience knows exactly what he’s referring to. After talking about the previous night’s Republican debate (“You watched that? How could you watch that?” asks one character), Thomas’ sister Joyce (the excellent actress Amy Warren) gives voice to what so many in the audience and the country are experiencing.
“It sort of feels to me like we’re all about to jump off some crazy high cliff. Doesn’t it?” she asks.
Then they are on to other topics—which is exactly how most people deal with matters that could have huge (but distant and uncertain) impact on their lives.
Nelson says he started writing the plays over a year ago and added the line about the cliff because of what has happened in the last few weeks. “There’s no way I could have expected it would be this way when I started writing,” he says.
Probably only about ten minutes of the 100-minute performance include any political references. And that makes sense. Nelson is convinced that “unless you are a politician or political analyst or journalist” national events are just the background noise to daily lives.
Our attention is focused on our immediate problems—children, aging parents, and the difficult people we deal with at work.
In Hungry, some of those difficult people are the rich folks in town. With Rhinebeck just an hour from New York City, the wealthy “weekenders” arrive with a sense of entitlement—and make the long-time residents feel uncomfortable.
There’s a painful story about how the brother George (Jay O. Sanders) was taken advantage of by a rich guy.
George’s wife works for a caterer and marvels how much money people will toss around.
Joyce suggests that they both quit and start up a food truck. “Drive it around to the rich people’s houses. Ring a bell. Make ‘em a nice latte,” she jokes.
If not class warfare, it’s at least the understated resentment that sizzles in many neighborhoods.
But don’t expect the concerns about income inequality and losing their position in the world to turn the Gabriels into Trump supporters at some point. Nelson has a different perspective.
“They’re a lot more like Bernie Sanders supporters or Elizabeth Warren supporters,” he said briskly.
These nice, liberal folks might ‘feel the Bern,’ but they talk most about Hillary Clinton. One character says she would like to see a woman president in her lifetime—but is Clinton the right woman?
Another mentions Clinton’s laugh which doesn’t sound real—or maybe it is, since she knows women who laugh like that.
It is all personal and emotional--how much they like her and whether Chelsea Clinton really lives in a ten million dollar apartment. It’s exactly the kind of conversation women have about Hillary Clinton every day. (Her emails never come into it, in the play or in most people’s discussions.)
“When women talk about Hillary, it’s not an abstract conversation,” says Nelson. “They’re seeing themselves in her or not seeing themselves in her. It’s looking at politics with a great deal of history—their own history, their lives.”
After their musings, the women go back to making dinner and Thomas’ widow Mary (the terrific Maryann Plunkett) tells a funny story about how to measure the right amount of pasta. (“You imagine you have your hand wrapped around a man’s erect penis….and that’s how much pasta for two.”)
Nelson also directed the play, and he brings a coziness to the staging. We smell the onions cooking (making a ratatouille is the undercurrent of the entire play) and as the characters talk, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together.
Nelson’s brilliance here is to show how the personal really does become political. Much of the conversation may seem unimportant (though engaging to watch), but it’s ultimately small matters that decide big ones.
Political columnists may expect voters to look at policy and position papers, but real-life people like the Gabriels (and they are as real-life as any characters you’ll see on stage this season) filter the politicians through their own personal vantage.
“We are so damn confused right now,” Karin says in the play. “I want to feel better.”
The Gabriels probably live around the corner from the Apple family, who Nelson wrote about in a four-play cycle a few years ago (and that was shown on PBS). But Nelson points out that the Apples all moved to Rhinebeck, so for them, it was about finding a home.
“The Gabriels were born here and grew up in this town. For them, it starts to feel like one is losing one’s home,” says Nelson.
And it’s not just the Gabriels. Nelson is raising a bigger question of people on both sides worried about losing their home—the country they believe in.
Though his play is deeply grounded in reality, down to the onions being chopped that make eyes tear in the second row, Nelson knows its real power comes from how the specific events in the play can have bigger reverberations.
“I don’t start with the big picture and then try to find that representation,” he says. “I try and write the people, and if I’m successful, they may in some way reflect the nation, or part of it.”
Hungry manages to be small and intimate—and at the same time illuminate both human emotion and world views.
While the play The Humans has gotten kudos (and moved to Broadway) for its depiction of a family trying to cope with every day events, Hungry raises the level. It’s the most moving and beautifully written play on stage right now.
The second play in the cycle premieres in September and the final on election night. Nelson has both of them written, but will continue to update to the last minute.
He may not know exactly what the Gabriels will say in the play that opens in September, but anyone who has seen Hungry can’t wait to find out.
Hungry is playing until April 3 at the Public Theater.