With Nathan Lane Leading the Way, ‘Pictures From Home’ Is Worth Going Out For

Zoë Wanamaker and Danny Burstein also star in Bartlett Sher’s witty, moving production of Sharr White’s new play adapted from the late photographer Larry Sultan’s 1992 visual memoir of his aging parents.

Julieta Cervantes
Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane, and Zoë Wanamaker in ‘Pictures From Home.’ Julieta Cervantes

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but can its expressive powers measure up against those of Nathan Lane?

Thankfully, Mr. Lane gets to complement, rather than compete with, the scenery in Bartlett Sher’s witty, moving production of “Pictures From Home,” a new play by Sharr White that was adapted from and titled after the late photographer Larry Sultan’s 1992 visual memoir of his aging parents. So do the estimable actors who accompany him: Zoë Wanamaker, cast as Sultan’s mother, Jean — Mr. Lane plays his father, Irv — and Danny Burstein, who plays Sultan.

The compact but illustrious company is well-suited to a play that demands both intimacy and broader strokes of emotion, and humor. The scenic design, by Mr. Sher’s frequent collaborator Michael Yeargan, suggests a green-fruit theme, with shades of lime and avocado mirroring the walls and carpet in a room in the San Fernando Valley home where the elder Sultans remained until their retirement.

Projected images from Sultan’s book loom behind the performers through much of the play, permitting the characters to observe representations of themselves. That the couple we see on the screen — usually as seniors, but occasionally in earlier footage, some of which shows Larry and his brothers as children — is different from the one on stage heightens the sense of theatricality. Perhaps even more significantly, it underlines the photographer’s thesis: ironically, that appearances can be deceiving. 

The younger Sultan’s focus, and accordingly Mr. White’s, is a particular strain of the American dream — or fantasy, in their interpretation — embodied by Irv’s journey from Brooklyn boy to Southern California patriarch. It’s an evolution that, as depicted here, required not only sweat but a certain swallowing of both pride and myths.

Larry, who regularly addresses the audience while driving the narrative, explains that his project began during the Reagan era, when “resurgent conservatives were fetishizing the image of the family.” Although the photographer is fast approaching middle age and has a growing family of his own, he has become a frequent and — from Irv’s perspective, at least — not always welcome visitor in his boyhood home. His mission, he tells his parents, is to unearth their “life beyond the frame.” 

Irv sees it differently. “You pick and you pick and you pick,” the former sales executive says to his grown son, more than once. You can understand the old man’s frustration: If Larry’s efforts to psychoanalyze his parents through technology seem positively quaint in the age of social media, his activity is still fueled by ambition and neediness as much as love.

Mr. Burstein doesn’t shrink from these aspects, but the actor, who has played more flamboyant roles in several of Mr. Sher’s rapturous revivals of classic American musicals, also infuses his portrait with an easy, affable warmth that allows us to empathize with Larry, and like him, in spite of his quirks.

Ms. Wanamaker has a rather more difficult task as Jean. Although based on a real person whom Sultan obviously adored, the character is nonetheless something of a cliché: a dedicated wife and mother of a certain generation, who suffers the foibles of her husband and children as her own goals and achievements are undervalued. 

At one point in the play, Irv commits the mortal sin of referring to his wife’s real estate job as a “hobby,” setting up a monologue that neatly and predictably bursts his alpha-male bubble. Ms. Wanamaker delivers it, as one would expect, with grace and grit; if Mr. White seems intent on making Jean a feminist heroine — the sturdy, unselfish figure who truly holds her family together — the actress ensures that we see her as fully human.

Not surprisingly, though, it’s Mr. Lane who makes the greatest impression. Over the past 10 or so years, the beloved star of comedy and musicals has proven his range in revivals of dense and sobering classics by the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Tony Kushner; but there’s something this particular actor can do with more prosaic material that’s virtually unique. To call his Irv a sad clown would be doing neither the character nor the performer justice; it’s more about how Mr. Lane can mine humor and pathos in ways that show how fundamental both are to life, so that even the latter becomes strangely exhilarating.

“Being alive side-by-side. It’s messy, okay?” Irv admits to his son near the end. He adds, moments later, “It’s love, too.” With ample support from its stars and their director, “Pictures From Home” makes that synergy palpable and satisfying.

The New York Sun

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