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Buried Child: Theater review by David Cote
The first Buried Child I ever saw was a community-theater attempt in New Hampshire, maybe 25 years ago. My memories are vague, but I recall the cast was mediocre, the sets creaky. What stayed with me was the play, Sam Shepard’s chunky gumbo of Pinter, Albee, Faulkner and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, spiced liberally with the cowboy-dramatist’s puckish, Mojave-dry wit. Buried Child won a Pulitzer in 1979 and entered the canon as Shepard’s pivotal masterpiece, marking the end of his early Beckettian experiments and the beginning of a “realist” phase. Now the New Group’s revival offers a chance to reassess the harrowing family drama.
Directed by Scott Elliott and anchored by a deeply textured yet effortless performance by Ed Harris, the revival doesn’t strain for shock, emphasizing ordinary rather than grotesque aspects of its characters’ lives. Dodge (Harris) is a cantankerous, dying patriarch, swigging rotgut on the couch and staring at the TV. His wife Halie (Amy Madigan) babbles religious platitudes while cheating on Dodge under his nose. Two of their sons—ones that survived—are nightmares: creepy man-child Tilden (Paul Sparks) and the bullying, one-legged Bradley (Rich Sommer).
When Dodge’s estranged grandson Vince (Nat Wolff) unexpectedly visits with girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), the family hearth becomes a battleground for memory, power and identity. The men fail to recognize or acknowledge Vince, which sends him into an existential tailspin. Vince departs to fetch a bottle of Apple Jack for Dodge, and Shelly is temporarily stranded in a world of broken, dangerous men. The play is a gothic improvisatory riff on masculinity, sons and fathers and a poisoned land. As for that title: Yes, there’s an interred infant, and we should expect the truth to be unearthed by the end. As with most Shepard, the text is a lively mix of secondhand absurdist attitudes, macho swagger and purely theatrical shocks. This time, Shepard goes for something deeper and more tragic in the American vein.
The ensemble is packed with veteran talent: Madigan is two parts vinegar to one part honey as the needling Christian hypocrite; Larry Pine has a small but pungent role as a feckless preacher; Sparks adds another indelible goon to his gallery of freaks and outcasts; and Harris holds it all together with wit and quiet, bruised humanity. He’s probably the fittest and least moldy Dodge you’ll ever see, but Harris still acts the hell out of the character’s slow slide into death. By contrast, Wolff and Farmiga miss the menace and mystery of Shepard’s jangly, poetic lines, settling on banal or chirpy line readings. Elliott’s smartest move was probably to remove the intermission and it play straight through, but I wish he’d cast better younger actors. They’re out there.
I still want to see a bolder, more apocalyptic revival of this big (yet small) play, with a uniformly strong cast, knockout visuals and a directorial vision that finds more exciting ways to unlock the horror and madness at its core. Still, while this may not be the finest Buried Child you’ll see, the play only comes around every 20 years, and it’s worth a homecoming.—David Cote
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Sam Shepard. Directed by Scott Elliott. With Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Rich Sommer, Paul Sparks, Nat Wolff, Taissa Farmiga, Larry Pine. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote