A drama set on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that opens on Sept. 11, 2011 sounds gimmicky, yes? But the set-up for Sweet and Sad is one that playwright Richard Nelson has used before That Hopey Changey Thing took place on election night, 2010 and opened that November and one he plans to use again.
Sweet and Sad, which runs through Sept. 25 at Off Broadway's Public Theater, is the second and, not surprisingly, superior in what Nelson calls his ''plays-of-the-immediate-present'' series centering on the all-American Apple family in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The clan includes uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a former actor suffering dementia; lawyer Richard (Jay O. Sanders); his sisters, teachers Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and Marian (Laila Robins), and writer Jane (J. Smith Cameron); and Jane's actor boyfriend, Tim (Shuler Hensley). Yet despite the highly charged nature of the day, the dinner-table conversation is less political than familial: The biggest blow-up comes from a brother-sister tiff, and the most anxious moments rise from sisterly secrets. (The three sisters nice Chekhov allusion, by the way have good fun teasing Richard about his increasingly right-wing leanings. It's especially funny if you're picturing Sanders' spot-on portrayal of George W. Bush in David Hare's Stuff Happens, as I was.)
Sweet and Sad is less explosive, and less judgmental, than its predecessor, where the mere mention of Sarah Palin prompts Marian to drop her pie à la mode. Even when the talk does turn to politics, a palpable sense of unity prevails; liberal or conservative, the characters all identify with feeling ''lost.'' As for the 9/11 anniversary tie-in, the Apples mark the day with dinner and a community concert where Benjamin will be reading Walt Whitman's ''The Wound Dresser'' (the source of the play's title, incidentally). ''It is a day you feel like you want to share,'' muses Barbara. ''Even just sitting in an audience with others.'' Who knows whether that line, or Nelson's premise, will lose its impact in the days to come. But I'm glad I'll be sitting down for at least one more meal with the Apples. Election night 2012, anyone? B+
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-7555)