(L-R) Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker in "Pictures From Home" on Broadway (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Take a picture, it’ll last longer. This phrase transcended from sarcastic adage to artistic mission in the hands of American photographer Larry Sultan. In 1992, Sultan published “Pictures from Home,” a landmark photobook subjecting his parents, Irving and Jean, to his unrelenting camera lens. Snapping minute details of his parents’ lives, we see Irving revving up a golf swing, Jean prepping a turkey glossed in butter, both lounging in bed with newspapers and a fashion magazine. The pictures captured success, comfort and modesty — a life earned from rugged individualism and climbing the capitalist ladder. However, the text accompanying those pictures, sourced from interviews with Larry’s parents, exposed the psychological toll of ageism and anti-Semitism in striving for the American Dream. (“I had to change my name. To John Sutton. You have no idea about prejudice until you pass yourself off as somebody else,” Irving later laments.) Fascinated by this duality of reality and fiction, external and internal, writer Sharr White adapted Sultan’s project into a play of the same name. Unfortunately, the precise elements that saturate Sultan’s seminal work wash out Broadway’s “Pictures from Home.” 

“Pictures from Home” is a memory play — at times Larry (Danny Burstein) is in dialogue with his parents, at others he narrates his process directly to the audience. A captivating facet of Sultan’s original book was the way he blurred boundaries between candid capture and staged silhouettes. There are as many reports of the man sneaking into his parents’ bedroom to capture the underside of his mother’s foot as she slept, as there are reports of him placing the senior Sultans in specific postures for hours on end. Both scenarios play out bluntly on the Studio 54 stage in director Bartlett Sher’s production, dispelling the furtive joy of mystery one experiences when reading Sultan’s book. 

Irving (Nathan Lane) enjoys projecting the image of a successful salesman-turned-vice president with all of the essentials — a beautiful wife, sprawling lawn, those aforementioned golf clubs. He scorns Larry for taking a picture of him looking vulnerable with wrinkled skin and gray hair sprouting from his time-softened chest. Irving argues that this is not the picture of a successful man. Larry argues that, technically, it is. The two spar over the presentation of their family ad nauseam, hurling jabs at one another about the true meaning of hard work, success and what constitutes an upstanding image to no real conclusion. 

Also lost in this theatrical adaptation is the “everyman-ness” of Sultan’s subjects. With megawatt star Lane as Irving, there is nothing common about this common man. Lane punctuates dialogue with his signature crotchety sarcasm, though — for what it’s worth — the schtick works. His performance pulled laughs, but such a seasoned actor’s overreliance on sardonicism in moments of exasperation and shouting in moments of conflict grows tiresome. Burstein is able to shed more of his famous skin as Larry and makes a noble attempt at falling into the loosely drawn lines of his character. He is earnest as a son, didactic as a narrator, a bit glum as both. 

Zoë Wanamaker as Jean is the most successful in her performance as the iron-strong matriarch upholding the family’s finances for more than a decade. In the first year of her real estate career, she sold $18 million in property — shocking, considering the play centers on her husband’s accomplishments — but Irving condescendingly refers to her job as a “hobby.” This use of the word as pejorative bubbles into an argument between the couple that finally exposes a powerful layer of gender conflict and dramatic depth to White’s play, but it’s plopped so close to the end of an intermissionless two-hour run that its impact dwindles. 

Part of the urgency in “Pictures from Home” stems from Jean and Irving’s desire to retire and relocate to Palm Desert for their final years. Death is a morose reality, but one they embrace.  Larry’s incessant visits delay the move, but eventually, the few furniture pieces of designer Michael Yeargan’s mid-century modern home of a set become covered with tarps. Yeargan’s work is an impressive replica of the real-life Sultan home: Picholine olive green walls, tropical palm couch. But the actors appear tiny in the wide-open vastness of the living room. Again, mimicry hurts “Pictures from Home.” Negative space is powerful in photographs, but swallowing on stage — perhaps a metaphor for the entire production. 

The driving force behind Larry’s photobook was his desire for his parents to live forever. But  time is the one thing we cannot buy, even from the best salesmen. “Pictures from Home” is a sobering reminder of this. But with a single circular argument and no exacting point of view, the production suffers in an attempt to resurrect its source. Ambiguity can sell a photobook, but in this case, it only dulls a play. 

“Pictures From Home” opened at Studio 54 on Feb. 9, 2023.

Review photo: Julieta Cervantes

Creative: Written by Sharr White; Adapted from the Photo Memoir by Larry Sultan; Directed by Bartlett Sher; Scenic design by Michael Yeargan; Costume design by Jennifer Moeller; Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton; Sound design by Scott Lehrer and Peter John Still; Projection design by 59 Productions; Wig, hair and makeup design by Tommy Kurzman. Casting by The Telsey Office, Adam Caldwell and William Cantler.

Produced by Jeffrey Richards, Hunter Arnold, Rebecca Gold, Jayne Baron Sherman, Kayla Greenspan and Jacob Soroken Porter.

Cast: Danny Burstein, Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker and understudies Adam Grupper, David Mason and Lori Wilner.