Nathan Lane gets laughs in lifeless play


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Theater review

Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th St.

What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty.

“Pictures From Home,” the fatigued new Broadway play by Sharr White that opened Thursday night at Studio 54, is based on the celebrated photographs the late Larry Sultan took over the years of private moments between his California mom and dad. Those moving snaps are suffused with sensitivity and vibrant life.

What’s been schlepped to Broadway, however, is the opposite of a striking still whose subjects entice you with their mystery, conceal a secret behind the eyes and leave you wanting to know more about them. As envisioned theatrically, these are the sort of people who you wish would shut up in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

“Pictures,” directed by Bartlett Sher as an afterthought, is not really a play at all, so much as one guy’s musings about the middle class. It’s a drama-free paraphrase of Sultan’s essays punctuated by Nathan Lane and Zoe Wanamaker, as Irving and Jean respectively, wisecracking about being old. When you occasionally laugh at their jokes, you briefly forget that you’re bored.

After discovering hundreds of old Super 8 film reels from his West Coast childhood in a closet, photography professor Larry (Danny Burstein) decides to begin capturing his mother and father’s day-to-day life through his lens — every banal chore and unflattering nap — to prove that nostalgia for the 1950s is misplaced.

Larry (Danny Burstein) takes photos of his mom (Zoe Wanamaker) and dad (Nathan Lane).
Julieta Cervantes, 2023

Battering home the point, he tells the audience he decided to chronicle his parents’ “American Dream” during the 1980s because “resurgent conservatives were fetishizing the image of family.” White’s obnoxious dinner guest of a play, borrowing from the passages in Sultan’s book, is filled with academic observations that are insightful to read, but that a person would never actually say. 

When a character earnestly speaks a sentence like the “fetishizing the family” comment, they become instantly annoying. Such is the case with poke-and-prod Larry, who loves nothing more than to criticize the home lives of his poor aging parents.

Larry begins dropping in on them from San Francisco a couple weekends a month with his camera and lighting equipment to illuminate their lies: That dad’s corporate success as a razor blade salesman has made him happy; that mom sees her lucrative real estate job as just a little hobby rather than a bread-winning need; that both have been mad about each other their entire marriage.

They’re annoyed — “It’s like he’s been investigating us!,” mom says — but they humor him. Parents, it turns out, enjoy being around their kids.

Larry (Danny Burstein) takes photos of his mom (Zoe Wanamaker) and dad (Nathan Lane).
Larry (Danny Burstein) discovers hundreds of old Super 8 film reels from his West Coast childhood in a closet
Julieta Cervantes, 2023

All three speak directly to the audience a lot, and make so many asides that they cease being asides and instead become the main event. That’s why no scene sizzles — the characters are constantly aware of the 1,500 ticket-buyers over there. Most of the acting comes with a wink.

After about a half hour, the story settles into repetitive marital bickering. Larry projects his photos (the real ones Sultan took) onto Michael Yeargan’s set, which looks like the first hole at a mini-golf course, and describes them. What’s briefly onscreen is always more intriguing than what’s happening onstage, which, to be honest, is an obvious downside to putting on a play about photography.

Despite the material’s inherent weaknesses, Lane is strong as ever as an older and somewhat more contented Willy Loman. He takes his natural comic gregariousness and turns it into a weapon against anybody who thinks Irving isn’t the apex predator he believes himself to be. How could somebody so charming and charismatic by anything less than top dog?

Larry (Danny Burstein) takes photos of his mom (Zoe Wanamaker) and dad (Nathan Lane).
The three speak directly to the audience a lot during the show.
Julieta Cervantes, 2023

Wanamaker, on the other hand, tends to recede. Whether that’s because she’s up against two supernovas of stage energy, or because Jean herself has settled into a background existence in her shaky marriage is up for debate. I suspect it’s a mix of both.

It’s Lane, though, who is forced to do some heavy lifting to bulk up a thin show into something watchable. It’s in his performance that “Pictures From Home” shows flashes of promise.

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