Is a picture worth a thousand words? That’s the dramatic crux of Sharr White’s Pictures From Home, at Studio 54. White, a producer and writer of the Showtime drama The Affair, has in previous plays explored cognitive decline (The Other Place) and machine politics (The True), and in this contribution to the bio-genre usually inhabited by rock stars and other celebs he reframes ordinary family life. The result, while blurred around the edges, is nonetheless compelling. 

White’s play adapts esteemed photographer Larry Sultan’s 1992 book Pictures From Home, in which he combined stills taken from Super 8 home movies with his own portraits of his elderly parents, Irving and Jean. “The project,” as Irving condescendingly called it, absorbed a decade of their lives, with Larry leaving his own young family behind for long stretches to photograph and interview his parents at their Los Angeles home. White’s staging of events, with Larry looking for “truth” that he can’t define, Irving pushing back hard, and Jean observing with wry detachment, is a cross between classic family dramas like The Subject Was Roses and I Never Sang for My Father and Albert Brooks’ comedy Mother, where his unhappy middle-aged character moves in with mom Debbie Reynolds to figure out where it all went wrong.

The great director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, To Kill a Mockingbird) centers Larry’s actual photographs, which are blown up and projected on the back wall of Michael Yeargan’s set. (While the photos are fully legible, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton has rendered the SoCal surroundings soft and dreamlike.) Much of the play is call and response: Larry summons a particular photograph from an unseen projectionist, and Irving and sometimes Jean rebut his “evidence” of tensions seeping into their placid images, revealing the untold and untidy story of the Sultan family. Irving, more at home with the “hack” photographs of parties, family gatherings, and corporate retreats, calls forth his own pictures, his proof of a good life after humble, impoverished beginnings in New York City. 

You can’t say that White doesn’t commit to this bit. There’s a snoozy stretch where Larry and Irving do nothing but clash back and forth over the “project” that will have eyelids fluttering but that’s not a knock–boring circular arguments that go on forever are intrinsic to family life, and Pictures From Home doesn’t shy away from dramatizing that bedrock tedium. Gradually Irving’s complaint emerges–he feels that Larry’s photographs, meticulously composed, shot again and again, and insinuating (with Larry, say, adding a postcard of a topless Hawaiian dancer to one still of his parents unloading groceries) are equivalent to fake news, unreliable narrators of his pathway from an orphanage stay and anti-semitic slurs in New York to success as a Schick vice president in California. Segments with Jean, meanwhile, unpack her side of the narrative, about her own flourishing career as a realtor and her tolerance of her dismissive husband’s shortcomings.

If a show that makes a fuss over older folks retiring to Palm Springs (“Palm Desert!” Irving corrects, repeatedly) and a son essentially reliving his childhood through them despite their impatience doesn’t sound terribly scintillating on paper…well, it probably isn’t much of a read. And liberties have been taken in the material’s move from the West Coast. In the photos Irving resembles the film star Paul Muni, Jean is quite the dish shaving her shapely legs (with a Schick razor, natch), and Larry looks like a chill Los Angeleno; the Broadway cast is Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker, and Danny Burstein, none of whom seem to get much sun. But under Sher’s direction they lift an odd idea for a play from the page to the stage, finding the laughs (the two men excel as Irving tries to downplay his “improving” limp in Larry’s presence, and Lane can point and shoot a line like “If nobody can fire you from doing something, then it’s not a job” better than anyone) and the poignancy (Wanamaker’s voice alone can change the temperature of the theater in seconds). These heavy-hitters of the Broadway stage convince emotionally as real people, something the ChatGPT facsimiles of the recent Warhol/Basquiat play The Collaboration and A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, Xeroxed by the same author, fail to do. I knew little about the subject and hadn’t read the Playbill bios before I saw Pictures From Home and I’m glad I didn’t–the less you know, the more punch the ending will pack.


About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

View All Articles