11/26/2013 05:04 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Aisle View: Four Bites of the Apples

The greatness of Richard Nelson's The Apple Family Plays (now at the Public, with all four in rep through December 15) is not that the author manages to weave them around four pivotal dates in his characters' -- and his audiences' -- lives. This is a portrait, in four slices, of an American family. Not a typical American family, mind you. These are upper middle class, New York liberals: Baby Boomers dealing with life, family, death, and politics 60 years after the Boom.

The events in question certainly lend the plays an immediacy. That Hopey Changey Thing -- titled borrowed from a Dangerous-to-Democrats political rabble-rouser of the time -- took place, and opened, on Election Night 2010 (the night the Republicans and their Tea Party won the House). Sweet and Sad occurred on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Last fall's Sorry, again, centered on and opened on Election Day, 2012. (Obama beat Romney.) The final installment, Regular Singing, opened last Friday, the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The sheer feat of writing these plays before the fact -- all started previewing prior to the actual event, with playwright/director Nelson making changes to keep up with fast-changing current events -- is beyond impressive, especially when things turned out so well.

But The Apple Family Plays are about family, in this case a family as American as apples. (Nelson -- with a bow to Chekhov's Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life -- subtitles his Apple plays Scenes from Life in the Country.) The leader of the family -- at least during the seven hours or so of playing time, or maybe due to the power of Maryann Plunkett's performance -- is Barbara, a schoolteacher who lives in Rhinebeck, New York. She shares her house with her divorced sister Marian (Laila Robins) -- also a schoolteacher -- who moved in between the first and second plays. Younger sister Jane (Sally Murphy) is a writer, who lives apart but is closely tied to her sisters. Richard (Jay O. Sanders), the man of the family, is a lawyer who drifts from job to job and talks a good game but can't really win a point against the Apple girls. They are joined by Uncle Benjamin, a famous former actor (Jon DeVries), and Jane's boyfriend Tim (Stephen Kunken), a nonfamous actor who as of last week -- when Regular Singing takes place -- was working as a waiter at the Beekman Arms.

Regular Singing is built around an unseen guest: Marian's ex-husband Adam, who is not a character in any of the plays, is dying in a room upstairs. (Given a brief life expectancy by his doctor, he determined to stay alive until the day of the Kennedy anniversary -- just about the only not-quite-convincing aspect in Nelson's four plays.) This, understandably, brings up numerous family issues, including the unexplained suicide of Marian and Adam's twenty-year-old daughter between the first two plays. At the same time, the three sisters are worried about their failing uncle -- who was moved to an assisted living facility after Sorry -- and their flailing brother, who is now working in Albany and sprinkles the evening with Cuomo jokes that are far more interesting to him than to anyone else.

The acting company has played a key role in the creation of the plays; one feels that by the third Nelson was writing not only for the characters but for the actors playing the characters. Ms. Plunkett -- who is best remembered hereabouts as a wisp of a thing singing, dancing, and winning a Best Actress Tony Award opposite Robert Lindsay in the 1986 Me and My Girl -- gives a monumental performance as the bedrock of the family. She is matched by Mr. Sanders. (Given the thrust staging of the play, I spent at least 20 minutes of the play directly behind Sanders seated at a table. Who knew that you could fully feel the strength of a performance by staring at someone's back?) Robbins -- distracted by her estranged, dying husband upstairs and the ghost of her daughter in the kitchen -- gives yet another impressive performance.

The current Public productions of all four plays in rotation bring two newcomers to the group. Ms. Murphy makes a winning Jane, tiptoeing around one of the never-to-be-answered skeletons in the family cupboard (which is to say, is favorite Uncle Benjamin actually her father?). Mr. Kunken has the largest shoes to fill, those of Shuler Hensley who is presently supporting the Messrs. McKellen and Stewart in Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land. (When Hensley was unavailable last year for Sorry, his character was simply said to be out-of-town doing a show.) Kunken is fully equal to the rest as this member of the family who is not quite a member of the family. The prize of the evening, though, is DeVries as the gentle elder struggling with severe memory loss, smiling graciously when the memories slip away from him.

The political landmarks are the posts on which Nelson's four plots are staked, but it is the interwoven strands of character and family history that make The Apple Family Plays so very moving. And they are what make the plays viable individually; viewing all four in succession will obviously add to your comprehension, but they more than stand on their own. (I would select Sorry as the most indispensable, with Regular Singing a close second.) Taken alone or as whole, they mark a distinct peak in modern-day American playwriting. There are obvious parallels to Horton Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, not only in familial subject matter but in quality. And that's a mighty strong group to be in.