11/12/2012 07:41 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Theatre Time, See What's Become Of Me

"Time, time, time, see what's become of me."
- Paul Simon, "Hazy Shade of Winter"

Life, god willing, is long. Plays are short.

Though perhaps we don't think about it often, it bears remembering that plays and musicals, which can encompass so much, usually run about two to two-and-a-half hours (including intermission). Three hours is long; Gatz is a marathon.

In the time allowed for them, or permitted by the author, they can be a slice of real time or a span of years; a single location or spots around the world (and beyond); we see stories told in chronological order, backwards, or even all mixed up (see Ayckbourn, Pinter and Priestley). But compared to the lives of people, any individual piece of theatre is brief.

Theatre has proven fairly unconducive to stories told in multiple parts (like serialized TV) or as sequels (as in film). That's not to see there aren't assorted plays and cycles that have expanded beyond the usual time parameters of a single play, but they're the exception, and, when fully assembled, they are greeted as special events, and usually have short theatrical lives due to the expanse and expense of producing them.

This rarity is why I find the "Apple Family Plays" by Richard Nelson so compelling as a theatrical experience - because they are playing out the lives of their characters in snapshots of real time over a period of years. When I went to see That Hopey-Changey Thing in 2010, I think I was drawn by the novelty of a play set precisely when its theatrical run was happening; it was set on Election Day of that year and ran in the days just before and just after that night, officially opening on the day it was set. In 2011, when Nelson's Sweet and Sad revisited the family on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the novelty meant less than the audacity of the playwright's effort: same cast, same characters, in the same room, almost a year later. As I have written previously, I found the experience of the second play deeply moving.

Last night, I attended the opening of the third play in the planned quartet, Sorry, and I had yet a new response. I was genuinely delighted to see these characters again. They were people I knew, they had invited me as a silent guest to another gathering of the clan; I was a prodigal returning home, dutifully, so to speak. Deeply concerned about the presidential election, I preferred to share the evening in their company than with anyone else. Even though there were moments of sadness and tension, I think I sat with a smile on my face for perhaps the first 30 minutes (it's hard to say, as the two hour running time flew by). I was just so darned happy to see these people.

The Apples had not worn out their welcome, as television characters can do with 22 episodes a year; I got fed up with Greg House, I don't care who Ted Mosby marries, I don't even know who's threatening or sleeping with Sookie these days. Perhaps that's why some of my favorite TV series have been so short: the obnoxiousness of Cumberbatch's Sherlock doesn't overstay, the New Burbage Theatre of Slings and Arrows won't offer me another take on Hamlet; the first season of The Sopranos was perfect, while the subsequent seasons meandered, dissipating my awe.

In film, like theatre, most stories are told in the two-hour span that perhaps has evolved to match bladder capacity. The stories that go on are epics, or the so-called tentpole series (Bond, the Marvel heroes, hobbits, Luke Skywalker, Indy), and while I enjoy them, I don't invest emotionally as I do in most self-contained stories. I will confess to one exception: as a childhood sci-fi geek, the death of Spock in Star Trek II was quite upsetting, precisely because I have lived with this character on TV (both live and animated), as well as in books, for many years.

While it was the "this is taking place right now" aspect of the Apple Family plays that first caught my attention, it is the span of time between them that has proven most captivating. They have become the theatrical equivalent of the British documentary series 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up and so on. We dip into the Apples' lives over years, not hours; that is the verisimilitude that lifts them beyond their individual or collective worth as plays. They track our lives as we track theirs.

Inevitably, with a cycle of plays like this one, there is a desire in the audience and an urge among the creative tem (I imagine) to one day see them all in a single weekend. I am normally a fan of this kind of theatre: The Norman Conquests, The Orphans Home Cycle, The Coast of Utopia all become greater theatrical events when seen in a single day. Yet I now think that to do so with the Apple plays would not have the impact of their current method of production.

Yes, we would marvel at the skill and stamina of the cast and we would make more connections between the plays if they were performed in rapid succession. But we wouldn't benefit from the incremental changes in the actors bodies, their voices, their faces as they age with us from year to year; on a single day or weekend, we wouldn't have the joy of returning to old friends after true time away, merely the expectation of the next play after a meal break.

Don't get me wrong - I want to see these plays produced, widely, in the years to come, under whatever schedule necessary. Time itself will alter them, as they become fixed at moments in the past, instead of playing as current, and practicality may dictate that the same cast won't be available year after year in other venues. One actor was absent from this third play because of another professional commitment; his character will be forever absent from Sorry because of this.

The Apple Family Plays are a unique temporal experience in the theatre, and I treasure them deeply precisely because they use time and the outside world as no other show(s) I've seen ever has. I wish that Nelson would write the story of the Apples for many years to come, and that his original company would enact it far beyond the planned fourth play. I would plan my life around sharing in theirs.

But in the meantime, I look forward to seeing them next year for Thanksgiving, god willing.