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Nathan Lane’s New Play Is Photography Brought Alive

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Nathan Lane’s New Play Is Photography Brought Alive

Jan. 21, 2023, 9:00 a.m. ET
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By Rebecca Bengal

Photographs by Alec Soth for The New York Times

Ms. Bengal is the author of Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists,” a collection of essays and fiction. Mr. Soth is a photographer in Minneapolis.

In 1982, on a visit to his parents in Los Angeles, the photographer Larry Sultan came across home movies of his childhood, among them those that show the aftermath of his family’s move west from Brooklyn, the city of his birth, to a land of lawns and beaches and road trips and new cars in perpetual 1950s Southern California sunshine.

“They were remarkable, more like a record of hopes and fantasies than actual events,” Mr. Sultan wrote in “Pictures From Home,” the 1992 book he eventually made in response to these “30 years of folk tales” that had been etched in collective familial memory as historical record. The book became a landmark in narrative photography — part of an iconic body of work both deeply personal and conceptual, lyrical and honest, merging images and text. Mr. Sultan died in 2009, but his work and legacy have helped draw three major stars to the Broadway adaptation, the rare play based on a book of photography.

This month, just past the lone disco ball hung in the entrance of Studio 54, now a Broadway theater, the first day of tech rehearsals was being held for “Pictures From Home,” adapted by the playwright Sharr White, creator of the Netflix series “Halston.” The play features Danny Burstein as Larry Sultan, with Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker playing his parents, Irving and Jean. Irving Sultan, who was raised partly in a New York orphanage and became a successful salesman, demands, “Where’s the rigor?” in the life of his adult artist son. Jean calls real estate her “hobby.” In the book she says, “I sold $18 million worth of property in the first year.”

When the younger Mr. Sultan began re-examining his home movies, he was in his 30s, Ronald Reagan was president and the idea of “family” had been fetishized as a symbol of conservative ideology. “I wanted to puncture this mythology of the family and show what happens when we are driven by images of success,” Mr. Sultan wrote. “And I was willing to use my family to prove a point.”

His parents were reluctant accomplices. Mr. Lane, as Irving, grumbles about the times Larry accidentally leaves the lens cap on — “I just wonder if those were the ‘mythical shots’ he was looking for!” And yet, Mr. Burstein’s Larry addresses the audience, “What’s fascinating to me is how he can both mock and participate at the same time.”

Once, Mr. Sultan wrote, photographing his napping mother, he realized she had secretly woken: “She felt me looking.” Were his parents motivated by a desire to set the record straight, or was it love? For eight, nine, 10 years they put up with it, become actors in their son’s pictures, playing the part even as they insisted, in extensive, first-person text Mr. Sultan included in the book, on their own versions of the truth.

Throughout the 1980s Mr. Sultan intermittently visited his parents in Southern California. He was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he eventually became a professor at California College of the Arts, married his wife, Kelly, and raised two sons. There would be a Valium waiting for him bedside left by Jean, to help him sleep; there was the “day-to-day stuff,” as Irving put it, his parents’ aggravations and choreographed routines; there were the eerie preprogrammed sounds the house made at night signaling the life it maintained on its own, with timers for sprinklers and lights.

Nathan Lane, as Irving Sultan, waiting to make his entrance.

In his book, Mr. Sultan acknowledges his initial impulse to work forensically, anthropologically, photographing bedside tables, opening closets, drawers. He writes shooting lists that move between concept (“Project the Dale Carnegie photograph and do portrait of Dad standing in front of it”) to figments of memory and absorbed remark: “His prize roses, her chopped liver … We caught crayfish in the wash, set them on fire just to hear them scream, the sun in our eyes when we ate dinner.” Those lists sit alongside frames of Irving and Jean — at breakfast, fixing the vacuum cleaner, talking through the window — pictures that blur the line between documentary and staged.

This is a slipperiness Mr. Sultan aspired to. In a 2003 interview he said, “To me, the truth is about performance, how we perform, how we project, and the truth can be staged and it can be found. I don’t think there is such a division between the two.”

“What kind of book is it?” Irving asks in the play. It’s not a novel, not a biography. Was it even possible to make a play out of a photobook, something that anybody could see themselves in, something that does justice to the layered and complex ways in which Mr. Sultan’s words and pictures contradict each other and, ultimately, converge? The question lodged in Mr. White’s mind when he encountered a retrospective of Mr. Sultan’s work that was on view at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2014 and 2015.

“When I first read the script, I knew immediately it was kind of a memory play,” said the scenic designer Michael Yeargan, who worked with the director of “Pictures From Home,” Bartlett Sher, on his revival of “South Pacific.” “Then I went to the pictures themselves. You start looking for an envelope that will contain everything.”

Zoë Wanamaker, costumed as Jean Sultan, and the playwright Sharr White.
Mr. White and the play’s director, Bartlett Sher.
Nathan Lane, left, and Danny Burstein in front of a projected photograph of Irving Sultan.

Onstage that envelope fills to encompass the furniture of multiple spaces and eras that exist simultaneously, memory and image fusing with present action — Larry’s studio, the midcentury desk of Jean’s home office, the refrigerator in its time capsule hue of harvest gold, the palm leaf-patterned sofa and coffee table strewn with Irv’s newspapers, and the sliding door to outside, the garden, the horizon. The objects that appear like familial artifacts in the play were sourced or copied as closely as possible. “The color period is avocado in August,” Mr. Yeargan says.

On the first day of costumed rehearsal, the wigs come out. “I look like Jor-El,” Mr. Lane says, walking on with salt-white hair — not a helmet, exactly since it moves, but coifed. “Superman’s father.” As soon as anyone in earshot has mentally conjured an image of Marlon Brando in the Superman films, Mr. Lane is gleefully riffing on another 1980s icon: “John DeLorean.”

To their children, all fathers look a little bit famous. Older Irving drew comparisons to Johnny Carson, Mr. Sultan wrote. Even as he tried to shake Irving out of his stubbornly exaggerated, go-to pose (“like you’re acting the role of the heroic executive in an annual report”), Mr. Sultan’s memory of his recalcitrant father was also colored by childhood adoration. “He may have been Frank Sinatra to my mother,” Mr. Sultan wrote, “but to me he was James Dean.”

Ms. Wanamaker, in 1980s California real estate agent pale pleated pants, studies Mr. Lane, fixes a stray hair, like a wife appraising her husband just home from the barber. Later Mr. Lane brushes Mr. Burstein’s dark shaggy new bangs out of his eyes.

“It’s only when I give up trying to make pictures and begin to enjoy the time spent with them that anything of value ever happens,” Mr. Sultan wrote. As the pauses for tech stretch longer, Mr. Burstein and Mr. Lane lean back on the sofa cracking jokes. When Ms. Wanamaker crosses the stage, retraces her steps, muttering to herself, rummaging through her tote bag, flipping up the sofa cushions, it’s becoming harder and harder to tell who she is: Jean Sultan or Zoë Wanamaker, or somewhere in between.

When the actors return from a break, their wigs have been modified just perceptibly, as if a couple of months have passed in an hour, as if Larry is back home for another visit, mining the subtle differences since the last time. “Larry, I need your help figuring something out. Am I limping?” Irving asks his son outside the airport terminal, comically attempting to conceal it. As he stiffly rolls Larry’s suitcase across the imaginary tarmac, Irving’s foot drags behind him.

Mr. Lane, left, and Mr. Burstein.
Mr. Lane, left. and Mr. Sher.

In the glacial process of tech rehearsal, as sound and lighting cues are mapped out, scenes creep slowly forward, are paused for long minutes, wound backward, begun again, starting from the top. A theater during tech feels like a black hole.

It’s not unlike the way memory works. It’s not unlike a darkroom.

This is the darkness of creating — writing, photographing, rehearsing — and the point at which the work is making itself known. “Tell me, Larry, how long do you plan to keep doing this thing?” Irving asks.

Some time into the project, Mr. Sultan woke up in the middle of the night, struck by a plain and jarring revelation. “These are my parents,” he wrote. “From that simple fact, everything follows. I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.”

On the first day of tech rehearsals, projections of Mr. Sultan’s photographs loom on the back wall, at first roughly the dimensions of an overlarge museum print, before being adjusted, enlarged, to cinematic scale. The actors stand onstage, before the image, making three shadows against the picture.

One of the projections shows Jean Sultan in the garage, in saturated suntan and makeup, heading to one of her listings. The projection is reflected in a device mounted to the balcony. Below, a copy of “Pictures From Home”sits on Mr. Sher’s director’s table, sometimes borrowed by those working in the dressing room, where Mr. Sultan’s photographs of his parents are taped as references to racks of color-coordinated pantsuits and velour and leisurewear.

Moments later, when the actors break for dinner, the understudies quietly assemble in a basement lounge, running lines at fast-forward speed, like analog videotapes, the era of Mr. Sultan’s photos. In a few minutes they are scenes ahead of the last place Mr. Burstein, Mr. Lane and Ms. Wanamaker have left off onstage, their muted voices joining the galaxy of images and words of Irving, Jean and Larry that exist all over this theater.

Alec Soth is uploading photographs from his camera, I’m writing notes, creating still more Larrys, Jeans, and Irvs. The meta process of magnifying them makes them feel more intimate and personal. Not exactly immortal, but part of an infinite conversation, the roles that we keep endlessly reproducing and repeating, rebelling against one another as we grow closer and further, become versions of each other, slip away.

I can’t help wondering what Irving and Jean Sultan would have made of all this, a Broadway play. What their son would have. He wanted images to “become part of a larger narrative,” he said, “to slam up against other images (an afterimage). I want to measure how a life was lived against how a life was dreamed.”

Rebecca Bengal is the author of Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists,” a collection of essays and fiction.

Alec Soth, a photographer in Minneapolis, is the author, most recently, of “A Pound of Pictures.”

Additional photographs from the Estate of Larry Sultan/Casemore Gallery, Yancey Richardson Gallery, Galerie Thomas Zander.

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