BY MICHAEL MUSTO | Can a photo elicit multiple narratives, if taken out of context? That’s just one of the themes infusing Pictures From Home, an intermissionless, one hour 45-minute family play by Sharr White based on the photo memoir by late photographer Larry Sultan. Other themes that turn up involve damaging interfamilial dynamics, the meaning of success, and the use of imagery to lie to the world.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—about a discarded salesman trying to clutch at what’s left of the American dream—also provides an undeniable undercurrent in this thick stew of ideas. Sultan’s father, Irving (played by Nathan Lane) made his success by selling Schick razors, but he was fired (or, as he puts it, “quit”) 14 years ago, booted out with just one week’s salary as severance. Still, having lived by the self-improvement manuals of Dale Carnegie, he clings to his former rise to corporate stature and uses that to berate son Larry (Danny Burstein), telling him over and over again that the photo project he’s been shooting his parents for is a torturous and bewildering exercise. Dad would rather just look back at happy, sexy old photos of himself and wife, Jean (Zoe Wanamaker), whereas Larry wants to use his lens to probe for darker truths. Much like Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, in the Arthur Miller play, Jean is a bit of a tough enabler, though here she’s unafraid to call her hubby on his b.s. now and again, before getting back to posing.
Michael Yeargan’s set is a large room studded with patterned furniture, the back wall providing a giant screen for the home movies and photos that are being dissected. The characters alternately talk to the audience and to each other, as Larry—a professor of photography at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco—carries on as if he’s giving a lecture, announcing when he wants certain photos to be flashed on the wall, for discussion’s sake. (Projection design is by Ben Pearcy at 59 Productions.)
There’s a lot of talk, and one soon realizes that while Irving is relentlessly mocking the project out of a severe case of high-handed insecurity, he wouldn’t actually mind appearing in the finished book. After all, he and Jean are retiring and moving to Palm Desert, and that provides yet another reason for Larry to want to photograph them—he’s capturing them for eternity because he’s terrified they will die. (Though he has mixed feelings about that, I’m sure.)
Some of the resulting dialogue by White (The Other Place, The Snow Geese) is stimulating and even touching, though at times, it gets too cute (as with a recurring gag about how Sultan once accidentally left the lens cap on during an all-day shooting.)
But the three Broadway veterans who comprise the entire cast give the play heft. Tony winner Burstein (Moulin Rouge! The Musical) is convincingly brash, letting dad’s insults fly right over him, while hiding an appealing vulnerability. Wanamaker is also terrific, resolutely going about her business and eventually even showing a soft side. And Broadway titan Nathan Lane doesn’t play down to his character, lands every laugh, and has a volcanic explosion late in the play that is brilliantly pulled off. Unfortunately, Irving—who describes himself as a deeply vulnerable person who doesn’t want to be seen as vulnerable—is pretty insufferable company, and director Bartlett Sher lets Lane exacerbate that by screaming so many of his lines. When Irv starts giving Larry the silent treatment out of seething resentment, you’re relieved for his vocal cords.
So, this is a mixed bag, but recommended because it’s an original play starring three Tony types, and it doesn’t cover obvious territory. Don’t say “Cheese!”
At Studio 54 on Broadway (254 W. 54th St.) for a strictly limited engagement. Tickets are available at picturesfromhomebroadway.com, by phone at 833-CRI-TIXS (833-274-8497), and in person at Studio 54 on Broadway. Written by Sharr White. Adapted from the Photo Memoir by Larry Sultan. Directed by Bartlett Sher. The design team: Michael Yeargan (Set Designer), Jennifer Moeller (Costume Designer), Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Designer), Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still (Sound Designers), and Ben Pearcy at 59 Productions (Projection Designer).
Michael Musto is a columnist, pop cultural and political pundit, NYC nightlife chronicler, author, and the go-to gossip responsible for the long-running (1984-2013) Village Voice column, “La Dolce Musto.”
His work regularly appears on this website as well as Queerty.com and thedailybeast.com, and he is writing for the new Village Voice, which made its debut in April of 2021. Follow Musto on Instagram, via @michaelmusto.
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