THE CONCEPT IS EXCELLENT: Every year for four years, Third Rail will produce an installment of playwright Richard Nelson's play cycle about a contemporary New York family, the Apples. Each show will use the same actors, and will pick up where the last one left off.
The actors are excellent, too: Jacklyn Maddux, Maureen Porter, Michael O'Connell, Bruce Burkhartsmeier, and others from the reliable Third Rail ensemble.
But the second installment in the series, Sweet and Sad, is a tough show to recommend, thanks to subject matter that manages to be simultaneously dated and too fresh.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Apple siblings convene at a family home in upstate New York, along with their amnesiac uncle. The significance of the date keeps drawing the characters back into discussion of 9/11; around the kitchen table, they muse on the attack and their own reactions to it.
Despite the portentous date, the show's finest elements aren't topical at all: The family dynamics between the show's four adult siblings are compelling, thanks to intelligent, careful performances from actors who, under Scott Yarbrough's direction, play interpersonal games of cat-and-mouse based on love, long-held grievances, and wounds too fresh to excavate. Rebecca Lingafelter is particularly excellent as a scrappy, tightly wound sister, while Isaac Lamb lightens the mood of a show that tends toward the somber.
Nelson is a New York-based playwright, and this installment of his four-play arc actually opened in New York on the 10th anniversary of 9/11—one can imagine that in that context, it was a resonant, connected show. For those of us on the other coast, however, two years after that anniversary, there's a bit of a why-this-why-now feeling to the whole affair. Throw in some griping about the economy and New York politicians, and the show feels tediously rooted in the politics of the near past. Maybe in 20 years, this will make a great snapshot of an era; for now, it feels like an unnecessary recap of conversations that we, as a nation, just finished having.