Happy Families Don’t Make Good Theatre: “Regular Singing”

Presented by New Rep Theatre
By Richard Nelson
Directed by Weylin Symes
In association with Stoneham Theatre

Sept. 3 – 25, 2016
Arsenal Center of the Arts
Charles Mosesian Theater
Watertown, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

(Watertown, MAMy charming date to New Rep’s Regular Singing described the show as “a play about white people having white feelings about JFK’s assassination” for two hours with no intermission. She continued, “this play isn’t discussing anything new or political.” It barely breaches JFK’s assassination, or singing, for that matter. My lovely, astute companion may have been harsh in her description but she’s not wrong.  

Playwright Richard Nelson wrote his four Apple Family plays, of which Regular Singing (RS) is the fourth, to incorporate the “individual’s voice” into our country’s political dialogue. He bemoans society’s reliance upon TV’s daily rants for news input*. He intends for RS play to remind his audience of the necessity of conversation. He is correct: the political is personal. Joe Average should follow politics and be vested in the nation’s political health. Yet, experiencing Nelson’s play is deeply frustrating. Frustrated viewers mean empty seats come intermission. Perhaps this is why, in two straight hours of talk with little stage action, there wasn’t one. An inaccurate because it is too brief summary of the show is here

Regular Singing lacks true conflict. Drama is briefly introduced into the play and then almost immediately resolved through controlled conversation. We don’t have an opportunity to be interested in anything that happens onstage because nothing lasts long enough to keep our interest.

Further, Nelson doesn’t provide a convincing argument as to why we should care about this family. They clearly love each other but we aren’t given enough information in two hours of talking to understand why we should love these generic white people. We don’t know who they are or why we should listen to their stories. 

The exception to this is the Apple Family’s welcoming embrace of Uncle Ben’s (Joel Colodner) conditional amnesia. Symes directed the cast to recognize Ben’s disability while also affirming his adult personhood. There was no pandering or belittling of Uncle Ben. Symes and his cast did an excellent job of creating situational character traits worth our sympathy.  

Adding to the frustrations: Regular Singing has a stellar cast of local favorites known for creating excellent theatre. They are working as hard as they can. Their efforts are valiant but there is no boredom like the mediocrity of familial politics of relatives being nice at each other. Not even they can make this show interesting. 

I didn’t enjoy this production. Regular Singing does far too much telling and not enough showing. It ostracizes its audience. We don’t know enough about the characters to invest our emotions in this show. One might speculate that Nelson assumes his audience has already read the other plays in the series.This assumption is unfair and unrealistic. My suggestion is to skip this one unless you are already familiar with Nelson’s work.
*Credit to writer Ian Wallace and editor Ruth Spack in the notes section of the Regular Singing program, “Richard Nelson and the Apple Family.”

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