The Broadway Theatre Review: Pictures From Home at Studio 54
“You pick and you pick!” Investigating, it seems, as a personal project, is steeped in familial attachment and engagement, at least here, in the framework of the new, very starry Broadway production of playwright Sharr White’s (The Other Place; The True) family drama, based on the photo memoir of the same name by Larry Sultan. It is, in theory, an interesting focus, to zoom in on the epic ceelebrations of the family, in order to understand attachment through the lens of old photographs and video footage. Sultan, the real-life figure at the center of this play, did this for years, photographing, interviewing, and writing about his parents, and his relationship with them, even as his father was desperate for him to “bring this thing to a close“. And as vocalized by his father, even as he mocked and participated, this photographic art project was somewhat demented, but yet, in spite of it all, it did become a book, and that book has now been turned into a play. For some reason. But one that isn’t all that clear here.
As a psychotherapist who focuses his work on the importance of attachment and familial history, the idea resonates, as I genuinely believe that to understand ourselves and our relationships, we have to look back and figure out all that has been handed down, “one razer blad sale at a time,” by our parents, and what they modeled and taught us about love. This exploration of Larry Sultan, portrayed dutifully by the wonderful Danny Burstein (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!; Fiddler on the Roof), has all the ingredients for a psychodynamic dream, but sadly, as written for the stage by White and directed with an eye for trying by Bartlett Sher (Broadway/West End’s Oslo; To Kill a Mockingbird), the resulting perspective on adulthood and attachment fails to find its way. It gets stuck in the unpacking and delivery of some pretty images, without ever really giving us a reason to lean in and care. And it really does, in the end, unapck pretty little about life beyond the frame.
That’s not to say that the actors don’t succeed in delivering, as everyone on that stage tries their solid best to give us answers to many a question. Nathan Lane (Broadway’s Gary – A Sequel…; Angels in America) as Larry’s father, Irving Sultan, is unfathomably good, playing with the best comedic heart imaginable. His focused physical humor and its delivery carries the narrative forward in a way that the script fails to do. And Zoë Wanamaker (West End’s All My Sons; Broadway’s Awake and Sing!) as mother Jean Sultan, deliciously and purposefully gives us her all. The energy and the depth she brings into focus is astounding and humanistic. The two develop a truly alive, long-married couple that resonates, sometimes wearily, and sometimes scratching with hostility, but always authentically engaged in the process and the material. They, along with Burstein, do their utmost best with the material they are given, but unfortunately for us all, it’s just not interesting enough to hold the play together. Even when they bring forth an uncanny knowledge of what might make this family tick, and what parts are stuck.
Larry is determined to discover some sort of truth, to unpack something from these images, forcing tape recorders and a camera lens in the faces of his parents incessantly. He yammers away about the art and the exploration he is attempting to do like a grad study trying hard to establish a reason for his weakly constructed final project. We wait for the payoff, to feel some sort of significance, but what is developed is meek, and even after we see the father and son come together a little bit more, the piece rattles along down a path of death and dying that should feel sad, but is only marginally so. And all you want to do is say, like his father does, “Larry, please, enough.”
Against a backdrop of images, structured together and projected on the blank back wall by 59 Productions (LCT’s JUNK), the exploration of Larry’s unpacking takes limping steps forward, looking for some sort of truth. “But whose truth is it? It’s your picture, but my image” is the exchange between the explorer and the explored. And even if the idea is an interesting one, it’s not developed enough to matter. Set in an expanding bland living room, designed by Michael Yeargan (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof), with purposeful costuming by Jennifer Moeller (Broadway’s Clyde’s), subtle lighting by Jennifer Tipton (LCT’s Intimate Apparel), and a solid sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s South Pacific) and Peter John Still (Broadway’s Oslo), Pictures From Home is determined to give us a meal, but instead continually gives us neverending overly processed snacks to munch on, while forever promising the main course is coming. The exchanges hold a bit of interest, but if you are waiting for those burgers to be done so you can fill yourself up on them, you will be disappointed. I know I was, walking out of the Studio 54 theatre hungry for something a lot more hearty and well made.