The Mound Builders

Theater , Off Broadway
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Photograph: Richard Termine
The Mound Builders
Photograph: Richard Termine
The Mound Builders
Photograph: Richard Termine
The Mound Builders
Photograph: Richard Termine
The Mound Builders
Photograph: Richard Termine
The Mound Builders

Theater review by David Cote. Pershing Square Signature Center (see Off Broadway). By Lanford Wilson. Dir Jo Bonney. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.

To me, Lanford Wilson will always be the Acting 101 playwright. The writer cut a wide swath through four decades of theater, but for those under 50, first contact with Wilson was probably through audition monologues and scene-study classes. His Fifth of July, Burn This and Talley’s Folly (in revival at the Laura Pels)—not to mention many others—feed actors yards of red meat: the haunted, tender, yearning seekers of Wilson country. My God, the man could write a confessional rant or easy-flowing scene. It’s the whole play that could be a problem. We’re reminded of these global limitations with 1975’s The Mound Builders, a fitfully compelling but schematic piece in which archaeologists unearth the ancient past while covering up the present.

There’s no faulting Jo Bonney’s warm, cohesive production at the Signature, filled with engaging young performers. August Howe (David Conrad) is leading a team of excavators in southern Illinois to search for the remains of a 7th-century-B.C. community. Also on hand for the summer dig is Howe’s photographer wife, Cynthia (Janie Brookshire), who’s dallying with callow Chad (Will Rogers), son of a local landowner. Lisa Joyce plays the pregnant, fretful wife of another scientist, and Danielle Skraastad is Howe’s flamboyantly chatty sister, a dissolute novelist who reels off poetic diatribes like a camp gorgon from late Williams.

Betrayal and tragedy rock The Mound Builders’ second act, but they’re less impressive than Wilson’s careful mapping of his characters’ inner territories. Still, for all the author’s skillful portraiture, the play wobbles between self-conscious poetics and highbrow soap opera. Strange how a thing that sounds depths can seem shallow.—David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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