11/09/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Richard Nelson's Sorry at the Public Is Nothing to Be Sorry About

Families -- usually described as dysfunctional -- are the meat-and-potatoes of the best (and not infrequently the worst) American dramas. Think of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Thornton Wilder's Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Arthur Miller's All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.

Now consider adding to them the Chekhovian quintet Richard Nelson has introduced in the first three plays of his proposed Apple Family tetralogy. On election night in 2010, he opened at the Public Theater with That Hopey Changey Thing. He returned to the relatives and the venue on September 11, 2011 with Sweet and Sad. On the night of the American public's vote to keep Barack Obama in the White House, he spends two more hours with the Apples by way of the intermissionless Sorry, again at the savvy Public.

Nelson has not only written the plays, but he directed them with such sensitivity that he makes a reviewer question the reliable axiom that playwrights shouldn't helm their own work. Of course, helping him achieve his remarkable success are the same actors continuing in their roles -- Jon DeVries, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jay O. Sanders, J. Smith-Cameron -- each of whom is giving a master class in naturalistic performing.

Having established his intention to convey how politics figure into the discussions of a typical American family -- okay, the Apple clan is a more or less the liberal Rhinebeck, New York group -- Nelson suggests in each of the works (all taking place for a couple of real-time hours on the day they're set) that political references emerge, but more often than not in the context of other family matters.

Therefore, Sorry unfolds between five and seven on the morning of November 6, 2012, when sisters Barbara (Plunkett), Marian (Robbins) and Jane (Smith-Cameron) and brother Richard (Sanders) have gathered. They're together so that a few hours later they can move one-time prominent actor Uncle Benjamin (DeVries) to a seniors facility in response to progressive memory problems that have altered his behavior unpleasantly.

In his diary, Benjamin, who resides with Barbara (as does Marian), has recorded clandestinely observing Barbara in the shower. It's one of possibly other transgressions. Barbara has tried to suppress the confessions, but her siblings have learned of them in the way family secrets between and among members almost always come to light. As Nelson pens it, Barbara's conflicted feelings about abandoning Benjamin, and the others' varying attitudes towards the scheduled event, preoccupy them throughout the two hours. For his part, Uncle Benjamin enters and exits uninvolved, but intermittently irritable.

While the Uncle Benjamin situation is the major topic of charged conversation, the Apples get around to any number of amusing or disturbing subjects. Richard, just back from London, tells a couple of funny stories about the two-month trip. Marian talks about beginning to accept her daughter Evan's suicide, which was revealed in Sweet and Sad. Jane allows that she's suspicious of her husband Tim, an actor on tour in Chicago where he's staying with an ex-girlfriend. (Incidentally, Tim appears in That Hopey Changey Thing and was played by Shuler Hensley, now uptown in The Whale.)

Through the extremely recognizable discourse, the small resentments among the sisters and brother and what they've confided to each other about one another surface regularly. The effect is to position the characters not as dysfunctional, but as eminently functional within any representative family's minor disagreements and alliances. The epiphany is perhaps Nelson's major accomplishment.

Oh, and the politics. There's a fair amount of chat about voting, which Marian goes off to do at a poll where new (unseen) boyfriend John is volunteering. Richard trails her to get a gander at John. Also, Richard, a lawyer, relays word on an Andrew Cuomo-held meeting which he hadn't attended but has subsequently heard that New York State's governor, for whom he professes little regard, brought his name up three times.

If Sorry -- the title is taken from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis and is meant to sum up the family's current spirits -- has a flaw, it's that there's surprisingly little mention of candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who certainly were relentlessly and compulsively gabbed about in most households these last few weeks. Then again, Uncle Benjamin's predicament is convincingly urgent to supersede other concerns.

As for Sorry being a 2012 spin on Anton Chekhov, a reviewer notices once again that the Apple women echo The Three Sisters: with Barbara standing in for Olga and Richard standing in for Andrei -- and Benjamin is more than reminiscent of Uncle Vanya -- with Barbara standing in for Sonya. Also note that Barbara and Marian are teachers and recall the Three Sister's Olga and Irina. Nelson always makes a point of including a direct Chekhov reference. This time it's about Uncle Benjamin's applauded appearance in a sometime-past production of The Cherry Orchard.

Another word about the superb cast: They each have several opportunities to appropriate the metaphorical spotlight on Susan Hilferty's spare two-tables-three-rugs set; Plunkett, however, is a possible first among equals. Her portrayal of a woman torn by the decision she must make is utterly heart-breaking, not to say sorrowful.

Because Sorry and its predecessors are so explicitly topical, a spectator can easily wonder whether they will date quickly -- may already be dated. Not to worry. Nelson's most potent observations about how families operate are universal. For that reason, the Apple Family plays stand a strong chance of remaining deliciously, juicily ripe for who-knows-how-long.