Review: How to Shoot Your Parents, in ‘Pictures From Home’

Several weekends a month, from 1982 to 1992, the photographer Larry Sultan visited his parents in Southern California in search of a story. Was it a mark of his failure or his overachievement that, instead of one, he found many?

In any case, in “Pictures From Home,” the 1992 photo memoir that resulted, Sultan created a classic of visual polyphony. Whatever he believed the work to be — a family portrait, a marital inquest, a takedown of Reagan-era masculinity — it was so much more by being all of them at once.

But a book of staged photographs, home movie stills and discrepant first-person narratives was also, by the nature of the medium, flat: the better to ponder its mille-feuille of contradictions. The camera, after all, stops time.

That would seem to make Sultan’s “Pictures From Home,” however brilliant, an unlikely source for stage adaptation, the stage being where time can never stand still. And indeed, the play by Sharr White that opened on Thursday at Studio 54, in a production directed by Bartlett Sher, has not made it all the way from two dimensions to three. Though honorable, thoughtful and wonderful to look at, with crafty performances by Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker and especially Nathan Lane, it caulks so many of the book’s expressive cracks that the best thing about it — its mystery — is sealed out.

Part of that is inevitable insofar as actors must have something concrete to act. To provide it, White has developed scenes from tiny cues in Sultan’s text, turning the subterranean Oedipal conflict between father and son, and to a lesser extent the conjugal one between husband and wife, into obvious rhubarbs, skits and lectures.

For actors like these, such carvings are raw meat, no matter that the carcass gets stripped. Burstein has a field day with Larry, who begins the play by announcing to the audience that “this project will become one of my hallmark achievements.” As his chest puffs out, Burstein puffs it back in: “I know that’s not a modest thing to say.”

It’s a peculiar choice to write Larry as a nervous pedant, proud yet endlessly defensive. But what he’s defending himself against immediately becomes clear upon Lane’s entrance as the father. “Are you still here?” is his first line.

Burstein has a field day with Larry, our critic writes, and Lane’s peerless verbal and physical clarity make for an entertaining impression of Larry’s father, Irving.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In the book, Irving Sultan is a glamorous remnant of the cocktails-at-lunch era of American business; at the peak of his career, he was a vice president at Schick. But having been put out to pasture some years before the photos were taken, his silver fox suaveness is mottled with flop sweat.

As in his earlier plays — including “The Other Place” (a haunting Laurie Metcalf vehicle) and “The True” (catnip for Edie Falco) — White prioritizes playability over subtlety. Here he pulls at the threads of Irving’s vanity and petulance, unwinding them from his other qualities to provide the lurid outlines of a personality. That’s sufficient for Lane, of course, whose peerless verbal and physical clarity make for an entertaining if somewhat black-and-white impression. Each argumentative thrust and deflection is as sharp as an actor can render it, and anything faintly funny is primped into a generous laugh.

That’s good news for the audience but less so for the real Irving, who was already skeptical about how his son would portray him, without having imagined how a playwright and Nathan Lane would. (Irving died in 2009 — as did Larry.) That the book’s tough bird winds up onstage a lovable bellyacher is one of the mysteries to be filed under “lost in translation.”

Translation is even unkinder to Larry’s mother, Jean Sultan, whom Wanamaker plays with pinpoint sociological precision. (The costumes by Jennifer Moeller and the wigs by Tommy Kurzman help immensely.) What Wanamaker cannot do, because the script does not permit it, is restore dignity to a woman who deserves it. After raising Larry and his two brothers, then watching her husband short-circuit his career, she took up her own because somebody had to; in her first year as an independent real estate agent, she sold $18 million in property.

Some of the book’s most trenchant photographs trace that transformation. (Projected at huge scale by 59 Productions against the back wall of Michael Yeargan’s slope-roofed, garishly green trompe l’oeil set, they look fantastic.) In them we see Jean, in late middle age, emerging from her housewifey past to become a serious breadwinner, with all the attendant anxieties. How this threatens Irving’s sense of privilege and primacy is clear enough on paper.

The triple portrait of the Sultans in the play deviates from what is presented in the memoir, our critic writes.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Yet in the play Jean is reduced to third banana and comic relief. She floats in and out of the men’s arguments and dithers in search of lost To Do lists. In one particularly unfortunate bit, elaborated from an innocuous sentence in the book, she is made to perform schtick like a bawdy 1960s comedienne about the size of the zucchini Irving grows in a garden. “He’s so proud of how huge it is,” she brays.

For all I know, Jean, who died in 2004, really talked like that; White has said he had “many conversations” with Kelly Sultan — the artist’s widow — about her husband’s process and “the many complexities of Irv and Jean.” But even if accurate to life as lived, the triple portrait of the Sultans in the play feels inaccurate to life as recorded in the memoir. For one thing, Larry himself is made, if sympathetic, insufferable. As he gassed on fatuously about image and illusion, I too found myself impatiently asking, “Are you still here?”

At just 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, a play should not feel padded, but it does. Still, it is hardly without its pleasures: It’s funnier than expected, and Sher’s poetic naturalism as he creates stage pictures is always moving to watch. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting reminds me of her superb work for dance.

Nor does “Pictures From Home” lack for pathos — less so when it jerks the audience’s tears, at the end, than when it lets the questions of a son’s need for his parents, even well into their old age, sit patiently in frame. Stopping time with his camera, Larry tells us, was a way of not letting them die. How odd that a living thing like a play does the opposite.

Pictures From Home
Through April 30 at Studio 54, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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