WATERTOWN — A joke about John Boehner (remember him?) crops up within the first two minutes of Richard Nelson’s “Regular Singing’’ at New Repertory Theatre.
Before the play is over, conversation among the four middle-age siblings of the Apple family has ranged across numerous other public figures, past and present: Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, Peter Jennings, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. Especially John F. Kennedy.
This is the fourth and final installment of Nelson’s Apple Family series of plays set against the backdrop of significant public events. And “Regular Singing’’ is a thing of melancholy beauty. As the Apples take stock of themselves and their nation on a fraught anniversary, the play registers as a wistful, carefully wrought meditation on death, memory, history, battered idealism, and the alternating exasperation and consolation of family.
It’s fitting that the playwright gives a prominent shout-out to Chekhov late in “Regular Singing,’’ because Nelson possesses a Chekhovian understanding of the rippling power of small moments and a gift for dialogue that reverberates below a seemingly innocuous surface. Like the other Apple Family plays, “Regular Singing’’ illustrates the ways that “the news’’ plays out behind our private lives, like a movie that is constantly flickering in the background and sometimes galvanizes our full attention.
The New Rep production of “Regular Singing’’ is directed by Weylin Symes, who was also at the helm for recent local productions of the first three Apple Family plays: “That Hopey Changey Thing’’ (set during the 2010 midterm elections) “Sweet and Sad’’ (which takes place on the 10th anniversary of 9/11) and “Sorry’’ (set on Election Day 2012). Moreover, “Regular Singing’’ features the same first-rate cast. How rare is that?
And how lucky are we, because the actors clearly have absorbed one another’s rhythms by now. They mesh together as smoothly and harmoniously as a well-honed chorus.
As the play opens, it’s late on the night of Nov. 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and the Apples have gathered in the Rhinebeck, N.Y., home of ever-solicitous, big-hearted (if more than a bit controlling) big sister Barbara (Karen MacDonald), a high school teacher. Upstairs, unseen, a man is dying.
The specter of death prompts self-reflection among the Apples. There is the sense that they’re asking what they’ve made of their lives, a self-appraisal that broadens out into a discussion of the state of the country (and, implicitly, what their generation has made of their opportunity to shape that nation). This may sound baldly schematic in description, but it’s not. Only once or twice does Nelson italicize a point, and those instances are jarring precisely because the rest of the play is so nuanced and understated.
The dying man is the ex-husband of another Apple sister, Marian (Sarah Newhouse), a third-grade teacher. Marian is still mourning the death of their daughter, who committed suicide, and she quietly sits apart from the other Apples, frequently running upstairs to check on her former husband. She seems to be barely keeping it together.
Also on hand are the third Apple sister, Jane (Laura Latreille), a spiky nonfiction writer who can’t seem to follow through on her ideas, and her boyfriend, Tim (Paul Melendy), an aspiring actor; the restless Richard Apple (Bill Mootos), a lawyer in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, who keeps invoking the word “Albany’’ as if it’s hallowed ground; and Uncle Benjamin (Joel Colodner), a once-celebrated stage actor now battling severe amnesia, the result of a heart attack and coma years earlier.
Special kudos to MacDonald and Colodner, but really, there’s scarcely a wrong note by anyone in this cast. From body language to facial expression to tone of voice, the Apples interact at all times like a real family, like people who have known one another all their lives. Look elsewhere for either epic dysfunction or Hallmark-style affirmation, however. The friction among the Apples seldom goes nuclear. Their clear fondness for one another doesn’t cloy. And the final installment of this remarkable series of plays does not disappoint.
Play by Richard Nelson. Directed by Weylin Symes. Presented by New Repertory Theatre in association with Stoneham Theatre at Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through Sept. 25. Tickets $30-$59, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.