The actor Nathan Lane had been planning to play the American anti-father Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (1949) when that production fell apart. Restless during the pandemic and casting about for his next project, he read a draft of Sharr White’s “Pictures From Home,” which recalled “Salesman” to him: The two scripts share an almost incessantly angry, backward-looking gaze at the glory days of midcentury American masculinity, embodied by a discontented businessman. Now, as White’s play opens on Broadway this week, Lane, 67, will star as Irving Sultan, a former Schick razor executive who’s supported both emotionally and financially by his doting if frustrated wife, Jean Sultan (Zoë Wanamaker), while sparring with their childish 30-something son Larry Sultan (Danny Burstein, also doting, also frustrated), both of whom tend to Irv in their artichoke-colored Southern California ranch home even as he struggles to return their affection.
The show, says Lane, is “about parents and mortality,” the latter of which has been on the actor’s mind since his 2020 cancer treatment. “They’re all fighting to tell their own story, and certainly Irv is fighting to protect this fantasy of his success.” Indeed, many arguments unfurl over 100 or so minutes, often in the form of direct audience address — it’s “part family dramedy, part documentary, part three-way TED Talk,” as Lane describes it — and the sorts of overlapping conversations native to people, like the Sultans, with Brooklyn roots and Palm Springs aspirations.
What moves the play beyond that living room drama tradition is the source material: It’s based on Larry Sultan’s 1992 photo memoir of the same name, which the Bay Area-based artist published after dozens of visits to his parents’ San Fernando Valley home in the 1980s. Sultan then combined a decade’s worth of staged photographs and recorded interviews of his mother and father, both of whom died soon after the book’s release, with stills from home movies taken during his childhood to create a vulnerable family portrait that’s as much about aging as it is about accountability — and loyalty — to those we care about most. Photographers like Alec Soth and Stephen Shore still venerate the project, a longer version of which was republished in 2021; White discovered it in 2015, six years after the photographer’s death, as part of Sultan’s first career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Afterward, the playwright contacted the artist’s widow, Kelly Sultan, and, over dinner, convinced her to let him option the book. She also agreed to open the archives so that White might achieve a new kind of bioplay, one that its director, Bartlett Sher, signed on to for its “multivariable potential,” he says, using found footage from the Sultans’ garage and photographic projections that, onstage, heighten the divide between truth and fiction.
White, who also writes for television and has had two other plays on Broadway, both in different styles, says the half-decade he spent finishing this script was, from the start, an “investigation” into the Sultans’ power dynamics. In memoir and play alike, Jean and Irving are willing subjects … until they become skeptical co-conspirators, wondering why their son seems obsessed with chronicling them so harshly. “There’s lots of conflict, but it’s not the end,” adds White, 52, who had a strained upbringing with his own parents and is now raising two teenage sons in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife, Evelyn Carr White, an artist and interior designer. “I was fascinated by this idea that you can say the worst thing, and ultimately nothing breaks.”
And yet it’s Irv — depicted by Lane with jocular, egotistic bravado that barely masks his deep fear of irrelevance — who always seems to get the last word: “I’ll tell you about mess, Larry,” he says near the show’s conclusion. “You know what mess is? It’s intimacy. Intimacy is a big fat [expletive] mess. But I’ll tell you another thing. It’s love, too. OK? This thing you think you’re capturing. This evidence? This mess? It’s love.”