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What Did You Expect?: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play Two

From 26 critic and 81 member reviews
Members say: Great acting, Absorbing, Intelligent, Relevant, Resonant

About the show

Tony Award-winning playwright and director Richard Nelson returns to The Public Theater with part two of his new three-play cycle about a year in the life of the Gabriels of Rhinebeck, New York. More…

'What Did You Expect?' brings us back to the Gabriels' kitchen, with the country now in the midst of the general election for president. Over the course of one evening in the house they grew up in, history (both theirs and our country's), money, politics, family, art, and culture are chopped up and mixed together while a meal is made.

The New York Times

"'What Did You Expect?' wears its topicality with modest stealth...It is a testament to Nelson’s well-honed craft, and that of his cast, that these topics are seldom addressed directly yet are embedded in the play’s every fragment. His family cycles inhabit the here and now with an unobtrusive thoroughness I’ve never encountered elsewhere in the theater...Every performance here glows with a compelling, specifically embodied mixture of trepidation and hope." Full Review

New York Magazine / Vulture

"By exploring the underwater part of the iceberg whose visible tip is politics, Nelson is challenging the idea of what political theater can be...The extreme naturalism of the writing is made delightful by the intelligence and humor of the characters...To keep material that deliberately abjures extremes of expression from turning merely mild, an extreme form of naturalistic acting must take up the slack…The Public’s cast is heartbreaking in its fierce, ordinary, believability." Full Review

Front Mezz Junkies

"These actors, all working seamlessly together, are giving us the purest and most straight forward depiction of a family that I have seen in a long time...It’s an intense and lovely piece of storytelling, meandering at moments, but engaging over all. The cast are pros throughout, and their difficulties are easily felt by us all. What Nelson is doing with this family and this three part 'Election Year' saga is impressive." Full Review

The Clyde Fitch Report

"'The Apple Family Plays' were a remarkable achievement in American theater and 'The Gabriel Family Plays,' though familiar in construction, are no less remarkable for their astonishing naturalism and for much, much more...Given the high quality of Nelson’s writing and the playwright’s direction of the cast, any cavil about not enough Trump denigration taking place and not enough misgiving about Clinton being expressed is just that: a cavil." Full Review


"There's a specific acting company for each series, too, six performers who essay the same roles in each work. The result is the creation of an actual, believable family, the kind you can expect to be stung by the immensity of losing a brother or a spouse, and one that is, despite the goings-on, immensely enjoyable to spend time with...Director Nelson and the six-member company convey their bleak emotions with great finesse." Full Review

The Huffington Post

"The central player in ‘What Did You Expect?’ is Ms. Plunkett as the widow. It’s impossible to say whether this is the writing, or simply the power of the actor; presumably both…Plunkett and her husband Sanders, both of whom are astonishingly good, were also mainstays of Nelson’s four Apple Family plays…While the six plays written thus far have all been masterful, the Gabriel plays might have an edge thanks to the lessons Nelson learned from the Apples...The entire cast remains excellent." Full Review


"Plunkett, a Tony winner, has anchored both the Apple and Gabriel family stories, giving life to the under-the-skin anxieties of the times while embodying the quiet but ineffable force of Nelson’s subtle dramaturgy. The playwright’s evanescent staging compels us to listen, and the storytelling thrums with power that, like the upright Bechstein that’s soon to disappear, is felt profoundly in its absence." Full Review


"Quietly dazzling...Our uncanny, intimate relationship with the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, has burrowed to an even deeper level of closeness...The style is just as leisurely and conversational, again creating an eerie verisimilitude from exquisitely understated acting, the complex psychology of honesty and characters with far-ranging interests and plenty to say...Whatever happens on Election night, it’s oddly comforting to know the Gabriels will be in it with us." Full Review

Financial Times (UK)

"There’s no real plot and nothing much happens. The Gabriels’ chatter, which takes in Herman Melville and Edith Wharton, is unusually cultivated, but they never embark on any great flights of eloquence. The results are as close to a perfect illusion as theatre can get, an effect heightened by the fact that each installment is set in real time on opening night...Some might say this is a bit like watching paint dry. If so, the painting is by Vermeer." Full Review

Entertainment Hour Blog

"Playwright and director, Richard Nelson, delivers such a flavorful and natural script that you feel like you are almost intruding on this family, but you can’t look away!...Mary Ann Plunkett really drives the show. She brings up stories and old work and delivers each line with such ease. She was hauntingly beautiful...This show will sweep you off your feet. It’s witty, relevant to what’s going on in our world without forcing it down your throats, and overall heartwarming." Full Review

Talkin' Broadway

"Nelson is virtuosic in his ability to tackle these issues...The acting, again by a peerless ensemble, bestows unheard-of life on this painfully naturalistic rendering of a people and a country in crisis. Plunkett remains absolutely stunning as Mary...She provides the riveting core for the evening—and, to this point, this trilogy...The problem with 'What Did You Expect?' is that, like its predecessor, it feels more like a proof-of-concept exercise than a play." Full Review

Lighting & Sound America

"The fate of the Gabriels is rendered without hysteria or speechmaking. But if you listen closely to them, you'll feel the pressure they're under, their sense that shadows are gathering nearer, ready to engulf them...Under Nelson's direction, his company has perfected a low-key, highly naturalistic acting style that perfectly suits the novelistic detail of his writing. The Gabriels can be enjoyed simply for an ensemble so seamless that you often feel like you are eavesdropping on old friends." Full Review

DC Theatre Scene

"The main strength of 'What Did You Expect?' is not in the sparse dose of explicitly political discussion, nor in the factual tidbits, but in the way that the six actors credibly inhabit their characters. There is little conventionally dramatic in the play; rather, we witness the believable rhythms of real time as it unfolds. Theatergoers must abandon traditional notions of what constitutes a drama in order to appreciate Nelson’s approach, but the acting makes this much easier to do so." Full Review


"'What Did You Expect?' bears a strong if superficial resemblance to the playwright-director’s beloved series of plays about the Apple family. Both families live in Rhinebeck, N.Y. , struggle with the loss of a patriarch, and are deeply unsettled by the state of the nation. But the sensitive, literate Gabriels are an intellectual and economic notch below the Apples, which makes this quintessential American family more vulnerable — and more precious." Full Review

The Hollywood Reporter

"While the play is undeniably static, such timeliness and the talented ensemble's fully lived-in performances ensure that you're utterly drawn into the family's world. The effect is akin to eavesdropping on a private family conversation, so intimate that when a bottle of wine is opened you feel mildly insulted not to be offered a glass...This edition particularly benefits from Maxwell's increased presence." Full Review


“‘The Gabriels’ cycle define a moment in time, as well as being chamber plays, small cast plays set in one place. Not much happens but much gets said and discussed. Described as ‘Chekhovian’, ‘What Did You Expect?’ is less so as there really is no dramatic event as in such Chekhov plays as ‘The Cherry Orchard’ or ‘The Seagull’. ‘What Did You Expect?’ offers its own rewards but may not be for all theatergoers.” Full Review

New York Daily News

"The play serves up a slice of humanity. It takes an intimate view of one family to look more universally at all people...Talk is peppered with direct and indirect allusions to the candidates and the chaos. All that anxiety doesn’t make the Gabriels’ intimate challenges easier — or make for the calmest dining experience. There’s no heeding the age-old rule not to discuss politics at mealtime. The stakes are too high...So pass the casserole — and the antacid." Full Review

Theater Pizzazz

"Resounds with up-to-the minute politics...The real meat of the play is referencing societal injustices and keeping a political agenda, expected in a theatrical environment–a liberalism that sometimes needs to answer many questions...The conversations are simply stated, the realities hit home and one doesn’t need to look up words or do research to find that all human beings desire the same basics and that they want to know there is still hope." Full Review

Bob's Theater Blog

"As usual, Nelson brings things right up to date with a reference to Hillary’s pneumonia and Jimmy Fallon’s messing up Donald Trump’s hair on TV. The political elements seemed less important and less integral this time, almost as if they were grafted onto the play. The varied conversations also seemed less part of a coherent whole this time. Anyone who has not seen the previous play may not get a lot out of this one. Nevertheless, the ensemble cast is once again superb." Full Review


"The genius is in the way their story is told. The masterful actors, their small playing space surrounded on three sides by the audience, speak in normal, conversational tones, creating a feeling of incredible closeness. You have a sense of eavesdropping on their intimate conversations...Oddly, however, in a hyper-partisan national atmosphere, the actual campaign is seldom mentioned...It’s hard to believe these aware people wouldn’t have more to say." Full Review


"While the focus remains on the personal, world events and the tempestuous current election campaign are very much reflected in the Gabriels' lives...As this surreal and seemingly endless campaign has reached a point where it's hard to stay fully engaged, the same is true for this middle play which was 'frozen' before the upcoming debates and could benefit from a little less talk." Full Review

Absorbing, Great acting, Great staging, Great writing, Resonant

See it if you want to experience theater up close and personal. It is a glimpse of our lives that we can brilliantly watch objectively.

Don't see it if You like your shows big and loud. It is an intimate piece that makes you wanna do life all over again and hopefully get it right this time.

Great acting, Great staging, Entertaining, Absorbing, Resonant

See it if See it!! Very impressive acting. So naturalistic. Wonderful writing. Very engaging throughout

Don't see it if You don't want to see a play where all the action takes place around the kitchen table. It is interesting (and funny!), but also intense

Absorbing, Great acting, Great writing, Resonant, Relevant

See it if If you like thoughtful Chekhovian family plays with great acting.

Don't see it if If you want obvious, cliched dysfunctional family dramas and you don't like to listen closely.

Seamless ensemble work, Great staging, Great writing, Intelligent, Masterful

See it if you enjoyed part 1 of this trilogy, or you are a fan of the Apple family plays. Superb ensemble work. Requires attentive listening.

Don't see it if you have trouble focusing on people sitting around a kitchen table and talking. If you need action or moving scenery, skip it.

Absorbing, Great acting, Refreshing, Relevant, Intelligent

See it if want to see second installment of a great family drama/comedy served up at a family dinner table.

Don't see it if you aren't a fan of fast paced smart diagogue

Absorbing, Great writing, Great staging, Great acting, Intelligent

See it if If you like an intimate,fly on the wall experience this is for is so real that you feel you know these people.

Don't see it if It's very subtle and you have to really pay attention or you won't get it

Absorbing, Delightful, Thought-provoking, Riveting, Profound

See it if You care about the contemporary American experience during this election year. Love amazing acting.

Don't see it if Need action on stage.

Absorbing, Thought-provoking, Great acting

See it if you're a Richard Nelson fan or if you're curious to see superlative ensemble acting. A really wonderful experience. It's quiet & deep.

Don't see it if you're bored by the thought of watching people sitting around preparing food & talking or you need big, explosive drama to satisfy you.

Absorbing, Masterful, Great writing, Profound, Nuanced

See it if You love beautifully written and acted pieces of theater. Beautiful ensemble work about real life.

Don't see it if You have a tiny bladder. 1:45, no intermission.

Quietly profound, The acting is amazing, must be seen, You might need to lean forward to hear everything, Get yourself there if you can find a ticket

See it if You like a meaty drama that doesn't hit you over the head. Even people who aren't political animals will enjoy.

Don't see it if You wouldn't enjoy a play that encourages you to think about it afterward and interpret what you saw.

Absorbing, Great acting, Great writing, Intelligent, Resonant

See it if you believe good theater depends on its actors and writers. Great ensemble cast with lots of chemistry. Not one line feels insincere.

Don't see it if you don't like hanging out with your relatives or you prefer high octane action.

Absorbing, Great acting, Original, Thought-provoking, Resonant

See it if You're worried about the upcoming election, even if you're not heavily invested in politics. You want to see a very relatable play.

Don't see it if You don't like dark drama

Also Although this is the second in a three part play cycle, it's not imper... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Great acting, Resonant

See it if We sit in the dark watching a family in their kitchen preparing a meal. It is so natural you cannot believe they are acting.

Don't see it if You do not appreciate small, intimate, natural, shows. Surely, a performer who appears not to be acting is doing the most superb job.

Absorbing, Great acting, Resonant

See it if you are fans of family drama and contemporary life, excellent ensembles, realistic adult situations portrayed exquisitely

Don't see it if you need churning plotting and show-off acting, have trouble hearing unmiked dialogue

Absorbing, stimulating, superb production

See it if you enjoy wordy plays, traditional but intellectually exciting, with wonderful ensemble acting. Get an ALD to help with hearing soft speech

Don't see it if you don't like talkative, soft spoken plays with little action and no denouement. If you haven't seen Part I (Hungry) this wont mean much to

Also If you like Richard Nelson, have seen the Apple family saga and Gabrie... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Great acting, Intelligent, Relevant, Intimate

See it if You like great acting and thoughtful writing. You care about the problems of real people.

Don't see it if You prefer action and easy to digest entertainment.

Absorbing, Great acting, Masterful, Intense

See it if You're looking for something smart and engaging without a lot of flash

Don't see it if your'e looking for spectacle or political humor

Also I went into this show not having seen the 1st part and knowing little ... Read more Read less

Delicate, Absorbing, Entertaining, Resonant, Thought-provoking

See it if you have a heart. This play occupies that quiet place inside all of us where our mother (hopefully) knew just how & when to hold & love us.

Don't see it if you need action or fast paced anything. This is like a recipe. It takes time to prepare and bake before it's ready to be consumed.

Entertaining, Great acting, Great writing, Masterful, Slow

See it if You enjoy shows like The Human. This is a conversational play. You're watching a family go through life. You're observing.

Don't see it if You prefer a play with higher stakes. This is a very mellow play with 'real' people. Not Huge animated characters.

Absorbing, Great acting, Great singing, Masterful, Relevant

See it if engaging, beautifully drawn characters; slice of life drama with a pulse on issues of the day that both destroy and strengthen family bonds

Don't see it if you want light fluff or heavy comedy

Great acting, Great writing, Mesmerizing, Great direction, Relevant

See it if you enjoy quiet shows that portray ordinary people living ordinary lives -- this show is somewhat similar to The Humans in that regard.

Don't see it if you want a lot of action or perhaps a crisis that the characters need to resolve -- this isn't that kind of show.

Also The actors do not speak very loudly. If you are sitting in the 4th row... Read more Read less

Great acting, Great staging, Great writing, Absorbing, Exquisite

See it if you enjoy terrific, naturalistic theater.

Don't see it if you need an action-driven plot.

Absorbing, Great acting, Intelligent, Relevant, Thought-provoking

See it if You enjoy naturalistic drama, family drama, or plays about American life right now. If you enjoyed The Humans, give this a try.

Don't see it if You're in the mood for broad comedy; you don't like plays without intermissions (1 hour 40 minutes).

Absorbing, Intelligent, Relevant

See it if You have seen the first and will see the third play In the Gabriels. Brilliant writing, staging, acting..

Don't see it if I think you should see it...although this strikes me as the least of the three, seen altogether they are transporting.

Great acting, Great writing, Exquisite, Intelligent, Resonant

See it if you've liked Nelson's Apple plays and want to see a great acting ensemble.

Don't see it if you take little pleasure in intimate, character and dialogue driven drama without a strong or propulsive plot.

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