What Do We Need to Talk About? 
What Do We Need to Talk About? 

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What Do We Need to Talk About? 

I gather round the campfire — some might call it a laptop — to watch Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About? a new play that takes place on Zoom. Commissioned by off-Broadway institution Public Theater who premiered landmark shows, such as Hair in 1967 and Hamilton in 2015, this was a chance to watch their latest world premiere. For everyone who missed its live stream on April 29 (as, sadly, I did), you can watch it here for free, or with a donation, until June 28.

In the midst of a global pandemic, with a revolving news cycle rehearsing our new status quo, what ought we be talking about?

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Public Theater (off-Broadway, New York) World Premiere of the Apple Family Play, 'What Do We Need To Talk About?' written and directed by Richard Nelson.

The Apple siblings — three sisters and a brother — have appeared in a previous quartet of Nelson’s, sitting round a table in Rhinebeck, New York. This time, clearly, their reunion is a little different. As the actors join the Zoom call one by one, a stellar cast recognisable from Hollywood blockbusters (including Jay O. Sanders in The Day After Tomorrow, and Maryann Plunkett in 2019's Little Women) and stalwarts of off-Broadway theater, for now quarantined in their respective New York homes, I feel a little tense.

If, as Hamlet says, the function of a play ‘is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature,’ then I’m not sure I want a mirror right now, but something more like a door. I’d like to be taken out of lockdown and its stream of video calls, not supplanted in someone else’s, where I can’t even talk. However, I’m soon taken in by Apples’ meandering conversation and the easy intimacy between them.

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Maryann Plunkett and Sally Murphy in the livestreamed world premiere of the Apple Family Play, What Do We Need To Talk About?, written and directed by Richard Nelson. Photo credit: courtesy of The Public Theater.

I’m especially won over when Richard Apple tries to articulate why he’s thinking of retiring. ‘In my job,’ he says (his character works with Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo), ‘it’s like I’m living a circle.’ The pandemic, as for all of us, has knocked him out of life’s usual rhythms, even in small ways: ‘here I am washing the dishes […] and the pleasure this is giving me, because it has a beginning, middle, and end. I feel accomplished.’ If my initial resistance to the play was that it would reflect the profound ordinariness of life under lockdown, then why am I so taken in by a story about washing dishes?

Richard’s anecdote reveals how entrenched the three-act structure is in the human psyche. We are creatures of narrative, and we depend on stories to shape our sense of the world. Thus, What Do We Need to Talk About? is aptly named. In the midst of a global pandemic, with a revolving news cycle rehearsing our new status quo, what ought we be talking about? It seems it should be everything and nothing all at once. What’s clear, though, is our need to talk.

'The Decameron' echoes the advice of physicians in treatises composed during the early years of the outbreak of the Black Death: recreation and psychological distraction of the utmost importance for fortitude and lifting spirits.

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Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken (clockwise) in the livestreamed world premiere of the Apple Family Play, What Do We Need To Talk About?, written and directed by Richard Nelson. Photo credit: courtesy of The Public Theater.

A shift at the midpoint of the play takes us closer, more explicitly towards this universal need. Barbara, a high-school English teacher, tells the group she assigned Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron to her students. It’s ‘about people telling each other stories while they wait out a plague,’ explains Jane. Barbara proposes they stage something similar, each taking turns to entertain the group, and being bookish middle-class Americans, they take up Barbara’s suggestion without so much as a titter.

Jane kicks off with some literary detective work she’s been doing regarding a possible stolen novel manuscript in the 1950s. ‘When you told the story, Jane,’ says Barbara, ‘I did not once think about a pandemic.’ Well, neither did I — but thanks for reminding me, Barbara!

Stories, evidently, are a kind of salve. Martin Marafioti even characterises Boccaccio’s work as ‘narrative prophylaxis’, suggesting that The Decameron echoes the advice of physicians in treatises composed during the early years of the outbreak of the Black Death: recreation and psychological distraction of the utmost importance for fortitude and lifting spirits. This is clearly something on the mind of Jane’s husband Tim, since when it’s his turn he offers a reading of The Cherry Orchard, and says Chekhov’s play is about ‘the need to heal, the need to go on.’

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Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken (clockwise) in the livestreamed world premiere of the Apple Family Play, What Do We Need To Talk About?, written and directed by Richard Nelson. Photo credit: courtesy of The Public Theater.

Perhaps Tim is projecting here in his revisionist reading of Chekhov, because he’s speaking to a family who also need to heal. Barbara, we learn early on, has recently returned from hospital, where she managed to recover from Covid-19. It’s a brush with death that requires some communal unpacking, but how to do so? When it’s Barbara’s turn to share she’s unable to shape her experience with narrative; instead, she plays Bach’s Mass in B Minor through her phone speaker, the group joined by and reflecting on the tinny sound of heartfelt devotion.

Struggling to make sense of what she’s going through, Barbara improvises with what she has to hand. With Zoom being one of the most downloaded apps during lockdown, it seems we’re all committed improvisers, too, getting human contact where we can. Far from using the app as a technological compromise, What Do We Need to Talk About? makes it integral to the plot. It reminds us that videocalls are veritable campfires, and stories — from washing the dishes to paradigm-shifting outbreaks — are its inextinguishable fuel.

By Sammi Gale

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