How Not to Forget: 'Sweet and Sad' Leaves Good Questions Unanswered

'Follies' is a perfect night of theater; 'The Select (The Sun Also Rises)' is a punchy, spikey story of regret

"Follies." (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“Why has our government given money to the families of 9/11?”

Barbara Apple asks her family this question near the end of a long, late lunch in Richard Nelson’s Sweet and Sad, the second installment in his trilogy of plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, which opened at the Public Theater Sunday night.

We first met this family of mostly devout Democrats last year in Mr. Nelson’s That Hopey Changey Thing, which was set on election night 2010—there’s Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), a high school teacher who’s hosting the meal; her sister Marian (Laila Robins), who moved in after her daughter died and her marriage dissolved; her other sister, Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a writer up from New York; Jane’s boyfriend, Tim (Shuler Hensley), an out-of-work actor; their brother, Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a New York lawyer; and Uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a retired actor suffering from memory loss. That time they talked about the state of modern politics and their growing disappointment in Barack Obama, offering a pleasant but fairly banal rehearsal of well-worn talking points.

This time it’s Sept. 11, 2011, and the family is talking about togetherness and loss, remembering and forgetting. With the same stellar cast, and once again director Mr. Nelson, Sweet and Sad is another well-drawn portrait of a recognizable blue-state family, and it has much more emotional depth than its predecessor. But, still, it ultimately feels more like a didactic list of messages than a dramatic examination of ideas.

“When a plane crashes or there’s a car accident or someone is shot in the street by a robber—the government doesn’t give their families money,” Barbara continues. “Does it? Do we?”

It does not; we do not. The reason the government gave money to families of 9/11 victims was to protect the airlines. Those who received money from the federal Victim Compensation Fund waived all rights to sue—not United Airlines or American Airlines, who let terrorists onto their airplanes; not the Port Authority, which built and owned two towers that collapsed.

But Mr. Nelson does not that provide that answer in the play—surprisingly, given that one of his themes is the wholesale corporatization of American politics. He doesn’t give any answers or explanations, preferring instead to have his characters ask questions that are allegedly taboo—the same allegedly taboo questions many have asked—and then leave them unexplored. Why are victims called heroes? Shouldn’t torturers be punished? Why was bin Laden shot dead when he was unarmed? Are memorials for the dead or for the living?

They’re excellent questions, all. It’s too bad the play doesn’t wrestle with them.

Coincidentally, the first Broadway opening of the fall season is arguably the greatest musical exploration of some of these same themes. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 masterpiece Follies is of course not about any great public tragedy. But the nostalgic look at an interwar Ziegfeldlike revue, the Weismann Follies, set at a years-later reunion party held just before the decrepit Weismann Theater is to be torn down, is theater’s great look at memory, loss, regret and resignation. It’s about the tragedies of time, of choices, of everyday life.

And, luckily, the Follies revival that opened at the Marquis Theatre Monday night is spectacular. Director Eric Schaeffer’s production is simultaneously rough and gorgeous; the 28-piece orchestra sounds fantastic; the design—Derek McLane’s scenery, Gregg Barnes’s costumes and especially Natasha Katz’s spectral lighting—is beautiful. The cast is flawless. It’s a perfect night of theater.

How Not to Forget: 'Sweet and Sad' Leaves Good Questions Unanswered