By Sharr White, based on the memoir by Larry Sultan; Directed by Bartlett Sher
Runs through 4.30.23
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street
by David Kaufman on 3.6.23
Nathan Lane and Danny Burstein in Pictures From Home. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
BOTTOM LINE: A mixed-bag of a play, Pictures From Home features a great cast of Broadway stalwarts but also a script that is more collage than cohesion.
One approaches Sharr White’s Pictures from Home at Studio 54 with a certain frisson, since it stars three of our most reliable actors. But not even Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker, and Danny Burstein can rise to the occasion. Burstein brings his customary bonhomie to the project as he portrays Larry Sultan, who for nearly a decade visited his parents Irving and Jean (Lane and Wanamaker) in Palm Desert on the West Coast, hoping to capture them for posterity, no less than for us. But under the unfortunate circumstances, the more usually effective and rigorous director Bartlett Sher (remember his sterling revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center) must assume his own share of the blame.
Based on a true story, the aptly named Pictures From Home proves artificial and fragile, like a soufflé that never rises, its ingredients undermined by failing to come together or to coalesce. In a program “note from the playwright,” White explains that “This play is my exploration of Larry’s exploration. But take one further step with me: it also represents these extraordinary actors, along with our director, interpreting that exploration: Larry’s pictures, his parents’ images, this play, all further interpreted by you.” Like the playwright, Larry Sultan is clearly drawn to layers and shades of meaning, of which there’s a seemingly endless abundance.
The Sultan family moved from Brooklyn to the West Coast in 1949, where Larry spent nearly a decade visiting his parents in Palm Desert, hoping to capture them both for posterity, and for us. Like this play, Larry’s project is not without its wry, humorous moments, such as when he spends a day in 1982 having his parents pose for his ubiquitous camera only to discover that he never removed the lens cap, or when he learns that his father went to Terminal B to fetch him even though the son had arrived at Terminal A.
With a barrage of images projected on a large rear screen—the projections are by 59 Productions—we observe the family’s visits to Yosemite and Disneyland. As we watch Larry the tyke jumping through a Hula Hoop, Larry the grownup remarks that he even “jumped through hoops” for his father. Before long, Larry tells us “I’ll be the first to admit that I regress,” even as the play marks his parents’ regression more than his own. (We’re also told about his offstage wife and children.) As Larry consumes bottles of beer and his father drinks cocktails, which his mother nurses, we quickly yearn to join them.
Nathan Lane portrays Larry’s father Irv with a woebegone, sad-sack expression, doing all he can to elicit our sympathy. At one point Larry hauls out an easel for his father to write on, spelling out successful methods of salesmanship. At another he brings out a folding screen so Irv can change into a blue suit. Employing the Dale Carnegie method of salesmanship, Irv sold bulk quantities of Schick razor blades. He also developed a pronounced “limp,” which Lane admirably demonstrates. But while Larry considers his photography a kind of a job or career (he also teaches photography), his father says, “If nobody can fire you from doing something, then it’s not a job.” Meanwhile, Wanamaker is underutilized as Jean, a real-estate saleswoman who observes her family as well as us with a frequently wistful, far-away look.
Michael Yeargan’s otherwise effective scenic design features sliding glass doors, but nothing is depicted beyond them in what appears to be a Los Angeles wasteland. We nonetheless have Jennifer Tipton’s typically evocative lighting design to rely on, which is entirely enhanced by Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still’s sound design.
After opening on February 9 at Studio 54, Pictures from Home is scheduled to play through April 30. It’s bound to appeal to anyone interested in examining layered, family relationships that transcend cursory considerations, albeit with mixed results. There is, finally, a residue of confusion and discontentment. White's figures talk at or through each other no less than they occasionally confront the audience directly with inquisitive expressions, as if to say, “Are you getting this?” Too often, the answer is that we’re not.
(Pictures From Home plays at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, through April 30, 2023. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets start at $65 and are available at criterionticketing.com. For more information visit picturesfromhomebroadway.com.)
Pictures From Home is by Sharr White, based on the photo memoir by Larry Sultan. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Set Design by Michael Yeargan. Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. Sound Design by Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still. Projections by 59 Productions. Wig/Hair Design by Tommy Kurzman. Production Stage Manager is Jill Cordle.
The cast is Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, and Zoë Wanamaker.