By: Paulanne Simmons
February 26, 2023: In 1992, photographer Larry Sultan published “Pictures from Home,” a photographic memoir that chronicled 30 years of his parents’ life. It quickly became a classic. But it’s hard to understand why a book of family photographs and narrated memories would translate into a successful Broadway play.
However, Sharr White, who also penned “The Snow Geese” and “The Other Place,” both family dramas, apparently believed this was possible. And this season’s Broadway production certainly has some impressive talent.
With Bartlett Sher at the helm, the play features Danny Burstein as Larry Sultan; Nathan Lane as his father, Irving; and Zoe Wanamaker as Jean, his mother. Despite their considerable acting chops, the actors fail to convince. In great part this is because Danny Burstein is much too old for the part. Even with wigs and makeup, it takes a huge leap of faith to believe Lane and Wanamaker are his parents and he is the father of young children he deserts several times a month to collect pictures and stories of his youth.
The play’s dialogue often focuses on photos projected onto a screen. These photos don’t serve the play as they are not of the actors but pictures from Sultan’s book. Sometimes we wonder who are these people and why are we looking at them?
However, what really undermines “Pictures from Home” is its lack of dramatic action. Much of the time the actors stare out at the audience as they deliver their lines. Whom are they addressing? No one knows.
When they do speak to each other, it’s mostly about events that happened years ago. This is therapy, not theater.
Occasionally they talk about what’s actually happening. These conversations revolve around whether Larry should continue making his pilgrimages to his parents’ home. Irving wants them to stop, Jean can’t seem to make up her mind and Larry emphatically wants to continue. But these arguments are silly when all Irving has to do is say, “Stay home, Larry.” Or “Next time you visit come with the wife and kids.”
In fact, most of the time the actors talk at or past each other. Do they have something to hide or simply nothing to say? Burstein and Lane interact like buddies who aren’t getting along so well. They argue over who will barbecue the hamburgers. Only Wanamaker occasionally gives real poignancy to the job of parenting.
So, what do we learn about the Sultans? It turns out Irving was a traveling salesman who cheated on his wife and tried to convince himself and his family he was more important than the facts would support. And Jean only bloomed after Irving was forced into retirement and she became a high-end real estate agent. Nevertheless, to the average observer, the Sultan’s have achieved the American Dream.
Sounds a lot like “Death of a Salesman,” only this time the wife has more of a backbone and the salesman survives.
Pictures from Home ***
Feb. 9—April 30. Studio 54, 254 W. 54 St., NYC.
Running time: 105 mins. with no intermission.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes