PICTURES FROM HOME Captures the Essence of Family — Review
Throughout the 1980s, the photographer Larry Sultan spent close to a decade photographing his parents at their kitschy home for what would eventually become Pictures From Home, a photo book that evokes the feeling of the American Dream set out to dry in the Southern California sun. Now adapted by Sharr White into a play of the same name, ably directed by Bartlett Sher, these images come to life through a trio of veteran actors, with Danny Burstein in the role of artist as eternal child, and creates an often moving portrait of family as an uncapturable, captivating subject.
In one fourth-wall breaking act, Larry takes us into his time spent with Irving and Jean, played by Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker with great humanity and humor. Though nervous that their pending decision to retire to Palm Springs might topple what he perceives as the “delicate imbalance” of their life, Larry flies down twice a month, for four days at a time (much more than Irving would like) and interrogates their domestic arrangement through constant photography and interviews.
Once a high-powered salesman during America's golden age as a land of attainable happiness, Irving now wanders about while Jean makes millions in real estate. What Larry sees as his father’s failures, and his mother's passivity, are slowly challenged, even as his parents become increasingly uncomfortable at their son’s quest for parental clarity. His own marriage is seldom referenced—along with the possibility that his increased time away from home might signal something going on there—but is brushed aside, skirting a possible dialectic between the two couples’ distinct lives and marriages.
Though White seldom strays from the parent-centric outlines set by the original book’s project—but does stray into some formulaic familial dynamics—he achieves a moving meditation on the drive to question where we came from, and what we could even hope to learn from our findings. Burstein lets Larry’s inquisitiveness, done in the name of art, veer into childish arrogance as his impulse to overlay meaning onto the mundane shows itself to be as simplistic as things are sometimes merely simple.
It’s all about the meaning we bring to things. Irving points to a picture taken of himself at a moment he was bored and suggests that Larry would likely find melancholy in it; “It’s your picture versus my image.” Michael Yeargan’s set ingeniously mirrors and advances this: the tacky, bright walls of the Sultan residence become a kind of green screen onto which Larry’s photos are projected (courtesy of Ben Pearcy at 59 Productions). Their house captured onstage and on camera, home becomes a site of conceptual projection.
The play is most compelling when investigating the stubborn desire to rub understanding parents’ noses in their imperfections for your own growth, at the cost of being kind or caring. A scene where Irving’s headshot from his heyday is contrasted with a candid shot of him sleeping is powerful in its direct confrontation of the competing desires between parent and child, emotional truth versus the “real” truth. (Another side-by-side comparison, later posed by Irving, grills Larry on why his own staging of reality—his poetic license to find truth through essence—should mean more than a glossy glamor shot of Jean).
While Lane is handed (and perfectly handles) the bulk of the play’s laugh lines and emotional beats, Wanamaker is sadly relegated to the background for most of its runtime. It’s a shame, given that, looking pantsuit-glamorous in Jennifer Moeller’s perfect costumes (never has a jewel-toned blouse communicated so much about kitsch as an affirmation of self) she strikes a powerful, memorable presence.
Such was the role of the mother, one could shrug, though with Sultan’s intentions set on dashing such minimizing ideals, it’s a shame Sharr could not extend the same grace. But while family remains an elusive thing to capture, and even shiftier to understand, it can appear, however imperfectly, the only thing to ever matter.
Pictures From Home is in performance at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.