A decade ago, playwright Sharr White burst into the Broadway limelight with two very different works: the Chekhov pastiche The Snow Geese and the medical mystery The Other Place. One decade later, he’s back with arguably his most commercial show yet, Pictures From Home, a kind of updated version of an old-fashioned boulevard comedy.
The Great White Way, emphasis on White, used to be overrun with such solid middlebrow fare, offering domestic situations that were familiar to audiences of well-heeled (mostly white) suburbanites who hired sitters for a night out in the city and sought onstage diversions that would be provocative but not too challenging.
Pictures From Home depicts a familiar setting: a ranch style home in California’s San Fernando Valley (set design by Michael Yeargan) that’s home to a long-married couple with three grown children. Nathan Lane, wearing a silver-white wig to appear older than his 67 years, plays Irving Sultan, a retired salesman who was abruptly sacked from his longtime job at Schick and now mostly putters around the house and gets under the skin of his long-suffering wife, Jean (Zoë Wanamaker). While Irving had defined himself by his knack for salesmanship, as the ultimate breadwinner, Jean is the one who’s emerged as the one of the area’s top real estate agents.
They squabble over everyday problems, overtalking in a way that is more affectionate than alarming. Their problems, too, have a generic authenticity: She can’t find her to-do list, or her glasses, and then locates them on top of each other in the offstage bedroom; he overcompensates for his obvious limp and wonders aloud if it looks like he’s walking like an old man. It’s a sitcom version of a long-married couple, and Lane and Wanamaker hit their comic beats right on cue, as if waiting for a laugh track to kick in.
This dynamic is catnip to their middle son, Larry, a photography professor in San Francisco who descends on the family home just about every other weekend to shoot photos of his parents and to interview them about their lives and the evolution of work and gender roles in American society in the second half of the 20th century. As played by Danny Burstein, an actor less than a decade younger than Lane, he’s a bossy interloper whose presence is sometimes more tolerated than embraced.
The Sultans are real-life figures, and Larry Sultan established his reputation with the coffee-table book that resulted from his nine-year project about his parents, also titled Pictures From Home, which was published in 1992. (I well remember seeing an exhibition of Sultan’s project in 2015 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a retrospective that also apparently inspired Sharr.)
Sharr grapples with some of the contradictions inherent in Larry Sultan’s work, in which the artist sometimes documents his increasingly forgetful parents with objective verisimilitude but also occasionally stages tableaux based on his conception of the larger cultural meaning beneath the glossy surface. The tension is clear in a scene in which Burstein’s Larry asks Irving to don his old suit, stand in front of a whiteboard with a marker and pretend to deliver a sales pitch. Irving can’t resist striking an artificially heroic pose, trying to re-create the look of a successful corporate executive from company brochures.
“It’s your picture but it’s my image,” he tells Larry at one point in the show, making a point that family members have made for an eternity to artists who have appropriated close-to-home stories for their work.
Irving is a striking character, bristly but caring, vulnerable but vain — a natural salesman obsessed with maintaining his self-image as a strong American man. Lane treats Irving as an old-fashioned star turn, rallying the audience to his side with his line reading and milking the material for every possible laugh. But there’s also a poignancy at work here, particularly with director Bartlett Sher’s use of onstage projections of Sultan’s actual photos. It’s enough to make one wonder what Lane might do with American theater’s other noteworthy self-deluded salesman, Willy Loman.
While Wanamaker gets a few onstage moments alone to say her peace, the play’s version of Jean seems content to remain in Irving’s formidable shadow. Sharr has crafted much of the drama around the father-son dynamic, but it’s only in the final third that the script begins to interrogate Larry himself — his compulsion to leave his wife and very young children for this “project” and its frequent visits to his parents, his desire to reshape their self-narrative through his own subjective lens. And that confrontation feels cursory, and rather too late. (We never hear from Larry’s wife, or from his other siblings.)
Sharr would rather not dwell on the downsides here — the compromises that come from making art or from making a life and family in 20th-century America. And there’s a kind of comfort of settling into that sofa with the palm tree pattern upholstery, and the easy laughs that come from our shared experience watching our loved ones grow older. Just like us, they become both more (and sadly less) like themselves with each passing year.