Magazine article The New Yorker

Stranger Than Fiction

Magazine article The New Yorker

Stranger Than Fiction

Article excerpt

STRANGER THAN FICTION

At half past five on Super Tuesday, as everyone awaited the returns from the primaries, Richard Nelson sat in a conference room at the Public Theatre. Nelson is a real-time playwright, best known for "The Apple Family Plays," a four-play cycle about a fictional family in Rhinebeck, New York, where Nelson lives. Each play is set on a historic night--the 2010 midterms, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 Presidential election, and the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination--and each opened on the day it takes place, with Nelson tweaking the script until the last moment, for verisimilitude. For the 2012 play, "Sorry," he added material about Hurricane Sandy. "The trains were stopped at Croton--they didn't go to Poughkeepsie for a while," he said. "That was actually very helpful for the story."

Nelson is now writing a trilogy that will chronicle the lives of another fictional Rhinebeck family, the Gabriels, during the 2016 election year. The first installment, "Hungry," opened on Friday, March 4th, in the heat of primary season, and is set on that night. The second will open in September, with the general election looming. The third will open--and take place--on Election Night. But the Gabriels don't argue over immigration or taxes. Nelson is interested in the way that politics weaves through the background of people's lives. In one scene in "Hungry," a woman is chopping apples and casually mentions a teaching colleague who watches both Fox News and MSNBC. Pretty soon, her companions in the kitchen are chiming in on Sanders ("Our son keeps saying, 'Feel the Bern, Mom' ") and Clinton ("Why does she laugh so much?"). "My goal is simply to put human beings in their complexity onstage," Nelson said, holding his latest draft in a black binder. "And one of the threads of human complexity is how people relate to their own society."

Nelson began writing "Hungry" fourteen months ago. "Clearly, knowing what was going to happen politically on March 4th was a guess," he said. Anticipating a Clinton nomination, he made four of the six characters middle-aged women. By Super Tuesday, he was feeling good about the decision. "Bernie Sanders's rise was a surprising one, but one that I held back from writing very much about," he said. "If he starts to win a bunch of states, then between now and Friday I will address that. If, on the other hand, as many people predict, Hillary Clinton will have sort of a blowout tonight, then I think the characters won't be talking much about Bernie Sanders. …

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