That Hopey Changey Thing (Third Rail Repertory Theatre)

Going rogue in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

That Hopey Changey Thing is like reverse dinner theater: Rather than audience members munching on their meal, it's the actors sipping wine and gobbling pie. Some even take second helpings. But unlike most dinner theater, where the show is fluff, Richard Nelson's play—set on the night of midterm elections two years ago, and cribbing its title from a Palinism—plumbs knotty family dynamics and the ragged state of liberal politics. 

Hopey Changey is also the first in a planned four-play cycle, which will follow a single family, the high-spirited Apple clan, over four years (director Scott Yarbrough and his cast and crew have all committed to the project). The dinner here takes place at the upstate New York home of schoolteacher Barbara Apple, who lives with her uncle Benjamin, a former actor who's developed amnesia since his heart attack. Barbara's three siblings join them: a lawyer, a second-grade teacher and a writer, who totes along her actor boyfriend. 

For much of the production, it's as if we're eavesdropping on so many conversations between disaffected liberals. Campaign finance, shovel-ready stimulus packages and the Middle East are weary topics, and the conversation is articulate but rarely fresh. "We don't have elections anymore," one sister says. "We just have money contests." Later, after the brother drops Sarah Palin's name, Barbara needles him. "So what's your point?" she asks. "Our elections are a mess," he says. Zzzz.

The characters' personal conversations are more engaging. Talk flows easily from the playful to the weighty, from recollections of embarrassing childhood memories to conversations about Ben's amnesia (Bruce Burkhartsmeier is rambunctious and affecting). Though arrows never fly—this is a family that tortures by tickling—the skilled cast rouses both quiet empathy and genuine laughter. 

As an isolated production, Hopey Changey is perhaps too muted. But as a prelude to a four-play cycle, it's a compelling introduction to a family worth knowing. When the next dinner invitation arrives, I'll accept.

SEE IT: That Hopey Changey Thing plays at the Winningstad Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 235-1101. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Through Oct. 28. $22.25-$41.25.