Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 9, 2023
Cast: Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoë Wanamaker.
Theater: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
How well do we really know our parents? That question would seem to have been the impetus for the real Larry Sultan (played here by Danny Burstein) as he spent close to a decade photographing, interviewing, and trying to understand his frequently bickering, sometimes outright insulting, complicated yet loving parents, his mom Jean (Zoë Wanamaker) and dad Irv (Lane). The play, which often breaks the fourth wall ("You know," Lane says at one point while gesturing toward the audience, "people can hear you when you say that"), is exceptionally strong in the way it captures the intimacy and, ultimately, the vulnerability that defines a long relationship between a pair of strong-willed individuals.
The play (and Larry's quest) begins with some home videos he says he found packed away in his parents' garage at their southern California home in a box covered in "dust and mouse turds." We see footage from these movies along with blowups of photographs from Sultan's book throughout the play. It hardly matters that Sultan's actual parents shown in those photos do not look quite like Wanamaker and Lane. Close enough, and it certainly helps give the play its air of authenticity.
He has a point, does Irv, even if it's not exactly the one that he states. We never fully understand Larry's motivation; the book project almost seems like an excuse for this grown man, one who has a family of his own, to spend so much time with his parents. Why, we wonder along with Jean and Irv, does he neglect his own evidently very patient and supportive wife and children? Why does he ask so many questions of the sort you might expect an adopted child to pose when he finally meets his birth parents?
So, yes. We have the stereotypic image of the man operating the camera hiding behind it, even as his subjects come fully to life. This makes Danny Burstein's role a real challenge to pull off. Yet he effectively serves as the liaison between Larry's parents and the audience, a sort of docent who guides us through the museum of his creative and endlessly curious mind. It is entirely through this interpretive "lens," after all, that we get to know Jean and Irv.
It's hard to imagine any actors who could be better at bringing those two fully to life than Wanamaker and Lane. Look at how Lane stiffens up whenever Larry tries to get his dad to pose for him; the way that Wanamaker shows us that Jean has her own strengths and how easily she is able to match Irv's overbearing demeanor, snark for snark. Yet look, as well, at the depth of the love they still have for one another and for the son they don't really understand. Makes you want to seek out an exhibition of Larry Sultan's photographs and study the real Jean and Irv as if you really do know them, even if it is all a matter of theatrical illusion.