In the aristocratic Farrelly home outside Washington, D.C., Fanny Farrelly, with the assistance of her two servants, Anise and Joseph, prepares for the arrival of her daughter, Sara, and her husband and children. Sara has not visited her mother for twenty years, and Fanny has never met her three grandchildren. Nervous about the visit, Fanny tries to get her son, David, and her house guests, Count Teck de Brancovis and Countess Marthe de Brancovis, to breakfast by 9 a.m., as her late husband had decreed.
To her housekeeper, Anise, Fanny reveals that the count and countess are heavily in debt and that she is concerned about David’s attraction to the countess. As Fanny and David breakfast on the terrace, Teck and Marthe argue about money, including his gambling with the Nazis at the German embassy, and about Marthe’s attraction to David.
After the count and countess retire to the terrace, the Mullers arrive and are impressed with the spacious living room. Sara, poorly dressed, delights in the beautiful things she could not remember. The family discusses Sara’s childhood and her memories of unlocked doors, plentiful food, and beautiful clothes—such a contrast to her own family’s bleak existence.
Pleased with Sara’s mature children, Fanny asks her, “Are these your children? Or are they dressed up midgets?” Responding to Fanny’s and David’s questions, Kurt, Sara’s husband, talks about his family’s travels and admits that he has not worked at his profession as an engineer for several years, since 1933. He also confesses that his family has not had adequate breakfasts because his new occupation, which he identifies as “anti-fascist,” does not pay well. Earlier in his work as an engineer his life was normal. Married to Sara for twelve quiet years, their lives changed when a festival in his hometown ended with a street fight and the murder of twenty-seven men by Nazis.
Kurt and Teck are wary of each other. Kurt recognizes the count’s name, and Teck probes to find out more about Kurt. While the family breakfasts on the terrace, Teck examines their luggage. When Marthe tries to interfere, Teck threatens her, warning her not to make plans with David.
Ten days pass, and everyone is now comfortable in the house. Sara is crocheting, Fanny and Teck play cribbage, Bodo “repairs” a heating pad for an anxious Anise, Joseph teaches Joshua to play baseball, and Babette makes potato pancakes for dinner. When Teck questions the children in an obvious attempt to learn more about their father, Sara cuts him off, saying, “It’s an indulgence to sit in a room and discuss your beliefs as if they were a juicy piece of gossip.”
Teck announces that he and Marthe plan to leave in a few days and suggests that the nature of Kurt’s work means that the Mullers will also be moving on. Fanny objects, joking that she plans to keep her family with her for several years because she will take a long time to die. David and Kurt return from assisting a local farmer, and talk turns to Babette’s birthday party and to presents for the whole family. Teck becomes angry at the suggestion that David has bought jewelry for Marthe, so Fanny tries to distract him by confronting him with the rumor that he has won a great deal of money in a card game with Nazis.
Kurt and Teck spar about Germany, and Kurt sings “Watch on the Rhine,” a song about Germans returning home from World War I. Kurt also sings lyrics made up by Germans, with whom he has fought against the fascists in Spain. Teck again questions the children about their father’s activities. Kurt responds, telling Teck to address his questions directly to him.
The atmosphere is temporarily lightened when Marthe enters with dresses that Fanny has bought for Sara and Babette. The pleasant scene is interrupted by a long-distance phone call for Kurt. Teck, Marthe, and David argue about David’s gift to Marthe. She declares she will not leave with Teck, insisting David does not have much to do...
(The entire section is 3,001 words.)