Around 1982 the photographer Larry Sultan began taking photos of his parents at their home in California’s affluent San Fernando Valley. And he kept at it over the next 10 years, finally publishing a curated selection of the images along with film stills from the family’s home movies in a book called “Pictures From Home.”
The visual memoir was a meditation on aging, an investigation into the ways we create images of ourselves and a commentary on the American Dream. And now, the playwright Sharr White has turned all of that into a play also called Pictures From Home that opened this week at Studio 54.
A photo album, even one as artful and acclaimed as Sultan’s (click here to see more about it), is unusual source material for a play and I want to applaud such originality. So that makes it even more disappointing for me to have to tell you that White and his director Bartlett Sher haven't been as creative in transferring the book's complexities to the stage.
Sultan died in 2009 at the age of 63 but, using texts from the book and taped interviews he conducted with his folks as he worked on the project (many of the quotes are used verbatim in the play), White has tried to imagine what the dynamics were between the Sultans during that decade-long process of working on the book and what motivated each of them to stick with it through to its conclusion (click here to read more about the transfer process).
Irving Sultan moved his family from Brooklyn to California in the early ‘50s to make a better life for his wife and kids (there were actually two other sons who are mentioned but don’t appear in the play). He succeeded, working his way up from a traveling salesman in hard-to-sell markets and into the executive suite at the Schick razor blade company before being pushed into early retirement.
White and Sher are helped immeasurably in bringing that journey to life by an all-star cast consisting of Danny Burstein as Sultan, Zoë Wanamaker making the most of a smaller role as his mother Jean and most especially by Nathan Lane as his dad.
Lane perfectly captures the alpha-male pride of the self-made man, the mid-century allegiance to American exceptionalism and the underlying uneasiness that things won’t be the same for his son who, despite all the differences between them, he deeply loves. And of course being Nathan Lane, he also wrings every bit of humor out of White’s text and then adds some more equally entertaining bits of his own for good measure.
And yet the play’s center doesn’t quite hold. In fact, I had a hard time finding a center. Arguments about why Sultan is photographing his parents, how long the project is taking and whether art is more important than real life are repeated and then repeated again. Attempts at insights into the bonds that hold this family together are proclaimed in big speeches toward the end of the play but little groundwork is laid for them earlier and the revelations seem to come out of nowhere.
Photos from the book of the real-life Sultans are projected on the back wall of the stage throughout the 105-minute performance and both my eye and mind kept drifting to them and away from the live action going on in front of them. Like the best art, those images not only invite you to look at them but prod you to look at yourself. Alas, that artfulness doesn't make the transfer from the page to the stage.
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