Esteemed photographer Larry Sultan published his collection “Pictures From Home” in 1992, in which visuals told the story of his aging parents, Irving and Jean. It was a well-regarded study of the family unit set against the American myth.
Sultan himself was only the observer, not the observed, in his collection, but he’s now occupying one-third of the space in Pictures From Home, a stage adaptation that just opened at the Studio 54 theatre under the direction of Lincoln Center stalwart Bartlett Sher. But the story being told here hasn’t exactly been opened up from its source material. Sharr White (The Other Place, The Snow Geese) may be translating two-dimensional images into three-dimensional ones, but in trying to give voice to pictures that tell a complete story on its own, Pictures From Home somehow manages to say less.
Danny Burstein plays Larry Sultan, son of Irving (Nathan Lane) and Jean (Zoë Wanamaker), and his presence significantly shifts the focus of this story form husband and wife to father and son. Though he is set up in the Bay Area with a family – including an expecting wife during the “action” of the play – Larry keeps flying down to his parents’ Los Angeles valley home to take an unending number of candid photos of his family as part of the project that he’d ultimately publish. He apparently did this for a solid decade, from 1982 to 1992; White’s play takes place during the late 1980s, as the Sultan parents make plans to move to Palm Desert.
We learn, through direct address to the audience (each of the characters interrupts their scenes to provide a more detailed backstory, sometimes denuding the dialogue scenes of their intended effect), about the Sultans’ history: Like Willy Loman himself, Larry, too, was a Brooklyn salesman. Only in his case, he moved the family to the West Coast and found great pride and success as vice president of sales for the Schick Razor Blade Company. And eventually, that Irving was terminated fourteen years earlier, causing Jean to take over as breadwinner as a real estate agent who moved $18 million worth of property in her first year, although that information remains shunted to the side for the bulk of the play until it fills a dramatic hail Mary for White.
The bulk of what ensues takes the shape of one of two different patterns: a redundant comedic one of “ain’t we a couple of stinkers” banter between Irving and Jean (they fight about petty things, and remain tightlipped about bigger issues), and a circular melodramatic current between Irving and Larry. One might say something that rankles that other, but nothing will come from it. (The older Sultan: “As a photographer, I presume one makes money by selling photographs. Right? What are you doing, Larry? You’re wasting all your time, all our time, making whatever, art, nobody wants to buy?”) Irving is a numbers guy and can’t quite comprehend what his son’s project will achieve, believing it to be a means to belittle him. He can’t stand one of the centerpieces of Pictures, an image of an older, shirtless Irv sleeping on the couch, caught in his vulnerability.
Pictures is a collection of dangling threads whose mini-conflicts neither come as a surprise nor offer much insight. White might intend to have included themes of what success really means and how we reassess our parents as we become adults, but the show’s dialogue skirts any elucidation. If there is some argument to be made about differences between the pre-war work ethic and Boomer mentality, it isn’t developed enough – there are references to Reagan’s America that don’t rise to a full observation. A labored mid-play scene in which Larry keeps attempting to get Irving to replicate one of his sales pitches for a pose to no avail doesn’t really arrive at any thesis – and then we see the real version of the image, which tells us everything about Irving’s success, built on a kind of dispassionate Kool-Aid drinking that eventually ran out.
And Larry never makes clear from the outset his true motivation for the book project, if there is one; if there is a dramatic reason for Larry to continually leave his own family to keep returning to his parent’s nest, some sort of “Cat’s In the Cradle” repetition of filial abandonment, the tail of bread crumbs never leads to a fuller meal.
The visuals also make the play a bit hard to swallow. Burstein is about seven minutes Lane’s junior, making the parent-child dynamic feel false (Seriously, they couldn’t find a 38-year-old to play this role?). Aged up a little in a gray wig that calls to mind his performance as F. Lee Bailey in The People v. O.J. Simpson, Lane is quite convincing, but Tommy Kurzman’s hair and wig design make Burstein look like a displaced character from a Saturday Night Live sketch, and these attempts to de-age him make him come off as spoiled and petulant, passive-aggressively using his project to poke the bear.
There is also the issue at the heart of this adaptation – pristine as they are, 59 Productions’ projections of the Sultans’ images and selections from home movies to the audience often contradict what Sher and White are trying to portray: In photos, Irving looks stronger, tougher, less flummoxed than the dramatic portrayal makes him out to be. Photos of Jean, meanwhile, suggest a world-weariness that, through no fault of her own, Wanamaker is unable to convince us of (more on that momentarily). However, set designer Michael Yeargan does pull off one minor coup, lifting up his interior set to reveal an orangey backyard view of the mountains at sunset for an outdoor barbecue scene (which makes me think that Burstein has never actually made hamburgers himself).
The casting triumvirate of heavy hitters is absolutely the real draw in Pictures, and the three actors do yeoman’s work with what White has handed them. While he can’t make himself younger, Burstein makes Larry’s frustration at being unable to reach his father palpable, and Lane does the same with Irving’s refusal to meet his son halfway. White often gives the latter the final say in scenes, but he evades hamminess because he undercuts his delivery with a very identifiable sense of disillusionment and frustration.
Would that the same could be said for Wanamaker, the shortest side in this scalene triangle. Though it emerges near play’s end just how formidable Jean is, White doesn’t give her much chance to prove it; her character is mostly a series of entrances and exits as she looks for her to-do lists and makes a wry reference.
But that’s ultimately more action than this dramatically inert memory play delivers. By the time it segues into an overly manipulative coda, we’re well aware that when telling a powerful story, less is more.
Pictures From Home