Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoë Wanamaker debate at length whether family photos and home movies are just personal remnants of the past — nothing more, nothing less — or whether they contain deeper meanings that are subject to extensive interpretation, analysis, and critical theory in “Pictures from Home,” an undercooked but often stimulating stage adaptation of Larry Sultan’s celebrated 1992 photo memoir.
Written by Sharr White (“The Other Place”) and directed by Bartlett Sher (the force behind Lincoln Center Theater’s series of lavish musical revivals, from “South Pacific” to this season’s “Camelot”), the play depicts Sultan (Burstein), a photographer and educator who died of cancer in 2009, as he obsessively photographs, interviews, and investigates his parents, Irving (Lane) and Jean (Wanamaker), throughout the 1980s at their tract house in the San Fernando Valley, much to Irving’s bewilderment and exasperation.
Larry is drawn to candid photos, such as of Irving asleep or Jean looking worried before she goes to work. Irving, on the other hand, loves photos that convey professional success and prosperity.
All three characters “break the fourth wall” to address the audience, provide expository information, and express their points of view about the project, wading into topics such as Reagan-era politics. nostalgia, truth and fiction in documentary, anti-Semitism, the American myth of success, aging, and gender roles.
In an author’s note that comes with the playbill, White describes the play as an “exploration of Larry’s exploration” — which, for better or worse, is accurate. “Pictures from Home” feels more like an academic lecture, slide show (with Sultan’s actual photos of his parents projected on the wall), and roundtable discussion than a narrative drama.
Lane, who was once slated to star in a revival of “Death of a Salesman,” here plays a Willy Loman kind of figure — a former struggling salesman who credits his eventual success to the public speaking advice of Dale Carnegie. Lane spends much of the play scoring easy laughs as his character endlessly kvetches, but later becomes more aggressive and then open. Burstein, on the other hand, conveys excitement and a sensitive, childlike aura. Wanamaker, perpetually acting busy, is relatively underutilized and sidelined.
Despite its diffuse quality, the production, more often than not, makes for absorbing theater, which has a lot to do with charismatic performances by three genuinely great theater artists and the presence of Sultan’s original photos (which I should admit I was viewing for the first time).
Sultan’s belief in discovering the vulnerability behind the mask is arguably more relevant today than it was 30 years ago in light of a social media culture where people post countless photos from smartphones that are intended to convey influencer status and celebrate consumerism rather than reveal any kind of personal truth.
“Pictures from Home” is now playing at Studio 54 (254 W. 54th St.) through April 30. More info at picturesfromhomebroadway.com.