A picture, as the adage goes, may be worth a thousand words, but not all of them require exposition. Nor do the people or places depicted always offer insight to those outside the frame. Such are the problems with Pictures From Home (★★☆☆☆), Broadway’s lethargic family drama based on a book of photos.
Between 1982 and 1992 photographer and college professor Larry Sultan took a bounty of photographs of his parents, Irving and Jean. He captured them in both candid, unrehearsed moments and in staged poses.
The process was painstaking, both for him and his subjects, but it ultimately launched them all to a sort of stardom within the photography world. Sultan released the book to numerous accolades and, according to the New York Times, it has “become a definitive guide to narrative photography.”
Playwright Sharr White was apparently so moved by the project, he decided to adapt the photos into a play. Even with the star power of Tony winners Nathan Lane as Irving and Danny Burstein as Larry, along with Olivier Award-winner Zoë Wanamaker as Jean, the piece rarely gains dramatic momentum.
Sure, there are a few tender moments and some amusing bits here and there. Lane is that rare actor who can wring a laugh under any circumstance. But here he is giving a more nuanced performance. All of them are.
Irving and Jean, native Brooklynites, ended up moving West after Irving read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Irving climbed the corporate ladder and became a Vice President of the Schick razor company. He flew high until he was forced into early retirement. The idea to move the family back to the east coast was not one that Irving would entertain.
Jean, meanwhile, launched into a career selling real estate, and the family settled first in the San Fernando Valley and later in Palm Desert. Their move occurs during Larry’s project.
For the most part, Pictures From Home is the standard depiction of a traditional American family. The most shocking revelation is that Irving had a streak of infidelity.
Jean admits to knowing about it, but casually brushes it off as though it were just the thing that men do. Jean often feels overshadowed by Irving’s success and hides her own so as not to hurt his ego. Larry explores this idea throughout.
Irving and Jean also bicker, but never to a point of mean-spiritedness. Here, they are just the usual marital squabbles practiced by most long-term couples. Initially, Larry’s parents are perplexed by the project and annoyed that a camera is always in their faces. Jabs are thrown at each other, and Larry is, at times, referred to as a “loser.”
All of this generates a few tense moments, but these are rarely the issues that land individuals on a therapist’s couch.
Set designer Michael Yeargan’s retro house is exactly what one might imagine in a California retirement suburb. The walls are big and bare enough to project Larry’s photos and, as they illuminate the stage, Larry addresses the audience as though he were giving a lecture. By the end of the nearly two-hour intermission-less work, it feels as though we have sat through a lecture, and not a terribly riveting one.
The biggest question the play — and Larry — poses is “How do we figure out our parents?” By answering it, we’ll hopefully gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.
The underlying current here is the painful conclusion that, should we live long enough, our parents will go before us. Consequently, we’ll be left to face our own mortality. Noble and philosophical ideas for sure, but not terribly original or unique — and certainly not necessitating a Broadway show.
Pictures From Home wants to be universal, but is so limited in scope that it fails to achieve its goal. It’s akin to the days when people would invite friends and loved ones over, break out home movies and photos from their recent vacation, and drone on and on about their experiences. No doubt they are meaningful to those who lived it, but the rest of us are left scratching our heads asking, “Why do we care?”
Larry mentions that his parents were in their prime during the Reagan era, a time when the mythological narrative of success was touted, but that we didn’t see what happened behind that image of success.
Quite honestly, we never do see what happened or how Reagan’s politics influenced them. Nor do we know how his parents felt about having to hide their Jewish ancestry, a point briefly noted but never again mentioned. Friends and other family members are never discussed. For a play about pictures, too much is underdeveloped.
Director Bartlett Sher is an established hitmaker on Broadway. His knack for breathing new life into classic works is remarkable. But here he is saddled with material that neither coheres nor captivates.
Artistic risks are a huge part of creating theater. These efforts should always be acknowledged, particularly in a time when brand recognition and notable stars dominate the marquee, attract tourists, and fill seats. To that point, Pictures From Home should be applauded. But not every photo is precious, nor worth the high cost of a ticket.
Pictures From Home runs through April 30 at Studio 54, 254 West 54th St. between 8th and Broadway in NYC. Tickets are $65 to $312. Call 833-274-8497 or visit www.picturesfromhomebroadway.com.
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