“What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” an intimate new drama by Richard Nelson being presented at the Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College, which is set specifically in September 2021 and depicts an Upstate New York family grieving loss and processing current changes in the world, marks the final installment of Nelson’s cycle of 12 dramas taking place around (but not directly about) politically and culturally important events, which is now known as the “Rhinebeck Panorama.”
In 2010, Nelson kicked off the series with “That Hopey Changey Thing,” in which the Apple Family of Rhinebeck, New York conversed at home on the night of the 2010 midtown elections. Over the next three years, Nelson penned three more plays (also produced by the Public Theater) depicting the family in the midst of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 presidential election and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Each play scheduled its opening night to coincide with the night on which the play itself took place.
Not done with the concept, Nelson wrote and directed “The Gabriels,” three plays about another middle-class Rhinebeck family in the midst of the 2016 presidential election. In fall of 2019, Nelson premiered “The Michaels,” about a third Rhinebeck family. Then, during the theater shutdown, Nelson brought back the Apple Family for “A Pandemic Trilogy,” three digital films devised as conversations over Zoom.
Now, Nelson is (supposedly) ending the “Rhinebeck Panorama” with one more drama about the Michaels, which is set in Angers, France immediately following the death of the family matriarch, Rose Michaels, a leading figure in contemporary dance, whose work is being celebrated in a student dance festival. Although Rose was already dying due to ovarian cancer, she somehow caught COVID-19 and was gone days later, leaving her family and former colleagues shaken up.
As in the prior plays, “What Happened?” eschews overt dramatic conflict in order to offer extremely detailed character portraits through bits and pieces of chat, discussion, and reminiscing as Rose’s family and friends sit around a kitchen and wait for lasagna to cook. There are also several dance sequences, during which Rose’s daughter and niece present recreations of Rose’s work, creating a sort of mini dance recital within the play.
Regardless of whether one enjoys Nelson’s extremely naturalistic, conversational to the point of being plotless style, one has to admire the scope and essence of the project, especially in how it manages to be both big and small in scope at once and tread into national affairs while remaining focused in on a single family unit. Nelson has directed the plays himself with many of the same actors, including Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders, who are married in real life and also lead “What Happened?”.
Personally speaking, while I originally found the plays to be far too slow, quiet, and uneventful, I eventually became fond of Nelson’s understated, character-driven, and ensemble-focused aesthetic. And while “What Happened?” (which runs 110 minutes without intermission) is admittedly drawn out, it makes for a heartfelt and satisfying conclusion to the series.
Through Oct. 8 at the Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College, 119 East 68th St., huntertheaterproject.org.