Theater Review: “That Hopey Changey Thing” at Studio Theatre

One of Richard Nelson’s two plays running in repertory offers bracing insights in a disarming familial context.

By: Missy Frederick

Too often, political conversations around a family dinner table end up with uninformed ideologues shouting at each other. In That Hopey Changey Thing, the conversation actually proves to be enlightening.

It takes some time to get to that point, but it’s worth the wait. Initially, Richard Nelson’s play is concerned with setting up the familial dynamics of the Apple clan, who are also the subject of Sweet and Sad, running in repertory at Studio Theatre. (That work, set on September 11, 2011, is focused on the 9/11 attacks—a reference point, but not the focal point for That Hopey Changey Thing, which is set a year earlier.) The family is a fascinating one, made up of four siblings with varying degrees of passion for liberal politics, as well as their uncle Benjamin (Ted van Griethuysen), a renowned actor suffering from memory loss.

Along for the ride is Tim (Jeremy Webb), another actor who happens to be the young lover of Jane (Kimberly Schraf); the performer has a knack for pulling Benjamin out of his internal world and getting him to actually articulate what he’s been experiencing during his years of dementia. Any time van Griethuysen resurfaces from his character’s stupor, he commands the stage.

Nelson lets the audience gradually get to know his characters and figure out exactly how they relate to one another. The play is entirely set at a dining room buffet table, intimately fashioned by designer Debra Booth; director Serge Selden smartly blocks the activity so it feels realistic, like the audience is spying on an actual conversation. Barbara (Sarah Marshall) is the de facto matriarch, who initially seems tense and jittery about her siblings coming into her home but soon relaxes into familiar patterns with them. Her sister Marian (Elizabeth Pierotti) is an abrasive Democratic organizer with knee-jerk liberal loyalties; her other sister, Jane, is a cultural anthropologist of sorts, at work on a book about etiquette. Shaking things up is Richard (Rick Foucheux), a civil-servant lawyer whose departure to a private firm has his family questioning his political loyalties, even before he makes them start questioning their own assumptions.

Hopey Changey proves to be just as engrossing whether it’s presenting abstract criticisms of the Obama presidency or just examining how its characters interact. Marshall, a master of comic timing, is hilarious expressing her nervousness that her sister Jane is watching her every move, hoping it will lead to some sort of behavioral revelation she can use for her book. As Richard, Foucheux can seem cold and condescending as he describes his newfound political cynicism to his sisters, but he still collapses into giggles when they torture him with tickles, as they did when they were younger. Eventually, Richard guides That Hopey Changey Thing into a bracing critique of the current administration, but it happens in a way that just feels like people sitting around, gradually spitting out their pent-up frustrations and realizations. Perhaps the most poignant one comes from Marshall’s Barbara, who reveals that warring 21st-century America may have more in common with the ancient Greeks and Trojans than we ever would have imagined.

That Hopey Changey Thing is at Studio Theatre through December 29. Running time is one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($39 to $75) are available via Studio Theatre’s website.