Pictures From Home | 1hr 45 mins. No intermission. | Studio 54 | 254 W 54th St | 833-274-8497
A picture is worth a thousand words, but fewer will suffice for Pictures From Home, a maudlin domestic drama derived from the 1992 photo memoir Larry Sultan trained on his aged mother and father. Sharr White’s play, directed by Bartlett Sher, borrows a few careworn devices—direct address, multimedia, levitating scenery—to probe issues of representation and alienation, but at heart it’s a double exposure of sitcom and family weepie, aimed to please a mostly older New York audience whose kids never call, never text . . .
About the source: In the Reagan years, Sultan began sojourning to his family home in Southern California to document the lives of his retired father, Irv (former VP at Schick) and his mother, Jean (successful real-estate agent). Their luxe, brightly designed house—automated lights, couch with electric-green palm-leaf upholstery—became the somewhat garish soundstage for the shutterbug to capture his parents, spontaneous and posed. He went in offended by right-wing bilge about “family values” and, after years shooting his progenitors, began uneasily rethinking how he valued them. The result is a book (mixing essay, photos, and archival shots) at once sentimental, anthropological, satirical, and strange.
How does White transform such rich material? He flattens it (quite a feat from 2D) into a memory play that follows the rough outline of the book but trivializes the tension inherent in the premise. That is: artist son hangs around cranky dad and fussy mother literally for years, stalking them with his camera, invading their privacy and provoking arguments over what the hell, exactly, Larry’s after—this “project” he keeps talking about? I could imagine an unnerving chamber drama about power struggles and fraught bonds between parent and child.
But when you cast Nathan Lane as Irv, who never let his son forget the time he left the lens cap on, you’re guaranteed big laughs, not shaded emotion. Broadway’s funniest leading man will always drive box office, but he’s a bad fit for Irv, who seems to have had Gary Cooper’s rugged physique and was no doubt more intimidating than Lane squawking punch lines to the back row. As Jean, Zoë Wanamaker comes closer to the big-haired, bronze-tanned original, but Sharr gives her too little to do until the later scenes, when a sobbing Larry confesses he’s photographing them because “I want you to live forever.”
Larry goes to an also-miscast Danny Burstein, who carries the burden of much clunky, on-the-nose narration with humble sincerity. Saddled with a passable hairpiece and a thankless role, Burstein can only do so much with a character who’s more annotator than protagonist, fiddling with equipment at a table stage right or refereeing the household squabbles that flare up between his controlling, overcritical dad and icy, recessive mom. There are reliable narrators and unreliable narrators; Larry never picks a lane. You begin to sympathize with the carping, nitpicking Irv—and he’s a narcissistic monster. “It’s more than just photographs,” Lane tells the audience early in the play, “it’s like he’s been investigating us.” And the sour, squeamish spin Lane puts on the last verb gets the guffaws.
The fruits of Larry’s investigations emerge slowly over 105 unbroken minutes. His father was orphaned young and raised in poverty, became a self-made man, moved the family West and climbed from razor salesman to top executive. He was proud of having an attractive wife and a gorgeous house, and if he stayed too long on the road or bullied his sons, it was simply part of the “rigor” he tried to instill in those around him. The faint echoes of Death of a Salesman that Sharr teases out are hard to ignore, with Lane as a Willy Loman who didn’t kill himself for retirement money, just napped and practiced his backswing in Palm Desert. There’s a meaty idea at the center of Pictures about how social and economic forces squeeze us into performative frames, and how that performance can pervert intimate relations, but it’s hard to find under the broad strokes and bathos.
Despite its distinctive visual source, the optics generally disappoint. Scenic designer Michael Yeargan’s suburban living-room set and Jennifer Tipton’s lights clutter and flood the broad stage of Studio 54, when they ought to be boxing, isolating, and rotating domestic areas for detailed inspection. Everything looks a bit loud and obvious, as if the elder generation’s kitschy, bright-hued aesthetic were allowed to call the shots. Sultan’s photographs are projected to fill the rear wall, a digital blow-up that does the art a disservice and only underscores the compositional blandness around it. No matter how many millions producers poured into the affair, Broadway stars and a team of designers can’t manifest what Larry Sultan did with his camera: the mystery and grace of people we thought we knew our whole lives.