Kicking a Dead Horse

HORSE BACK Rea tries to roll his mount.

HORSE BACK Rea tries to roll his mount. Photograph: Joan Marcus

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Sam Shepard has always owed a big debt to Beckett. He probably realized early on that the Irish writer’s awesome psychic wastelands mirrored the sere Western topographies of his youth. Beckett’s forsaken tramps stumble along barren metaphorical deserts, and so do Shepard’s—but never more so than in Kicking a Dead Horse, a very terminal new work.

This short play is as much an homage to Godot’s creator as to Shepard himself. In fact, there’s a whiff of contrived narcissism about the project, which features an impeccable, finely shaded performance by Stephen Rea as Hobart Struther. This successful Western-art dealer—an obvious Shepard stand-in—finds himself stuck in the desert with his gear and a dead horse, which he feels obliged to bury. Struther, exasperated and contemplative by turns, talks to himself and the audience, gradually revealing how he amassed wealth exploiting Americana, married a glamorous woman, became estranged, and now finds himself in late middle age searching for authenticity and, yes, the true West.

The playwright has ridden this terrain many times before. The difference here is a keynote of mortality, made defiantly clear by the horse-size grave center stage. Still, as in Beckett, there’s black humor and a genuine love of clowning and theatricality, as the action shifts from seminaturalism to surreal weirdness.

Shepard directs, and his staging is as assured and finely textured as Rea’s performance. Unfortunately, although this valedictory-feeling entrée will be catnip for Shepard fans, it never truly achieves much philosophical or emotional depth. Perhaps ol’ Sam will need to get up on that nag again.

Public Theater. Written and directed by Sam Shepard. With Stephen Rea. 1hr 20mins. No intermission.