“The death of the American dream” is something we hear a lot about, particularly this election cycle, as the GOP presidential candidates attempt to out-doom one another with each utterance. But the definitive autopsy was written during the Carter administration, when Sam Shepard’s Buried Child premiered at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in 1978. A sensation there and in New York a few months later, the play won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. I caught up with it in 1996, when, via Chicago’s Steppenwolf, it made its Broadway debut, in a production I have yet to shake.
Part of it was the acting–under Gary Sinise’s direction, James Gammon and Lois Smith gave indelible, Tony-nominated performances as woebegone parental figures, adrift in their private hells. Much of it was the play itself, strange, with jolts of macabre humor. Today, better steeped in the plays that influenced Shepard, I can see the Albee and Pinter embedded within it–it could be The Homecoming, written and performed in a Cracker Barrel. And it’s easy to see the debt playwrights like Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and Tracey Letts (Killer Joe) owe the author. The current Off Broadway production, from the New Group, couldn’t surprise me the same way.
It is, however, a more clarifying experience. Sensational as Gammon was, at least two out of every five words he spoke were lost in the gravel pit of his enunciation. Ed Harris, seated on a couch as you enter the theatre and rarely ambulatory for the two intermissionless hours, speaks very slowly, with the voice of the undead. You don’t know when he might start talking, or if he’ll ever finish when he starts. (His co-stars had to help him up for the curtain call, so deeply embedded is he in the performance, and the couch.) It’s a supremely off-kilter performance, scary–but also impotent. He plays Dodge, the patriarch of a family gone awry in the heartland. Wife Hallie (Amy Madigan), who speaks plenty for the both of them, departs for an assignation with the local priest (Larry Pine). Dodge is left with his two sons, the brutish Bradley (Rich Sommer), whose violent taunts go unrealized due to his false leg, and the disoriented Tilden (Paul Sparks), who somehow finds crops on farmland long gone desolate. Into this bleakness comes Tilden’s son, Vince (Nat Woolf), who had left to pursue a music career in the city, and has returned for a brief visit to find that no one remembers him at all. Stirring tension is Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), who restores the three men to a semblance of life, and awakens the ghosts of the past.
With Shepard’s material already out there, Scott Elliott directs simply, on Derek’s McLane’s rickety set. The playwright was playing off the recession of his era, and little needs to be pushed to link it to our own, as the limits to “exceptionalism” are reached from year to wearying year and the dispossessed are fogged in. (Vince, taken aback, tries to “save” his family, a quixotic gesture at best.) Harrowing, particularly as enacted by this gifted ensemble cast, with Killer Joe paying homage in one moment–and awfully funny, too. Buried Child (the title is not a metaphor) may not have shocked me this time, but it hasn’t lost any of its ability to engage and entertain.
Farmiga, a stage newcomer, has received the weakest reviews for Buried Child. It’s a tricky part, and I thought she was OK in it–by now, with more performances, I’m sure she’s really got those guys in a tailspin. Making his Broadway debut, Forest Whitaker, starring in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, won’t get as much of a chance to improve. The show is closing early.
Part of it is bad press. The play was dogged by reports of the Oscar-winning actor reading his lines off of the on-set water cooler, which struck me as unfair–that’s what early previews are for, not that the chat rooms are forgiving. Part of it is the length of the one-act show, less than an hour, which isn’t enough to justify Broadway prices. (It’s often paired with another one-act.) And part of it is Hughie itself. O’Neill intended the play, written in the early 40s, as the first chapter in an eight-part series of “obituary” plays. Nothing more came of the plan, and the work is minor.
But it has minor pleasures, like an excerpt from his monumental The Iceman Cometh. Hughie, the night clerk at a rundown New York hotel, is dead. His passing has badly affected the game of Whitaker’s Erie Smith, a small-time hustler. Perhaps the new clerk, last name Hughes, can help him turn things around? It’s doubtful, as Erie talks, basically to himself–Hughes (played by Frank Wood, a Tony winner for Side Man) isn’t given to banter. In the play’s best scene, both men, completely silent, are on opposite sides of Christopher Oram’s impressively distressed set. The gulf seems unbridgeable, a distance underscored by Neil Austin’s forbidding lighting. Under Michael Grandage’s direction, it’s a handsomely gloomy piece.
Directing Red and Frost/Nixon, other shows that were essentially two-handers, Grandage had livelier, more absorbing material at his disposal. In the smaller part, Wood skillfully fills in the blanks. In an interview from Elaine May’s American Masters program about the late Mike Nichols, the director called O’Neill the “clunkiest” of great playwrights, one whose plays needed actors who could “transcend” the uneven writing. Whitaker is no longer struggling with his lengthy monologues, and was appealing when I saw him in the show. But he doesn’t transcend Hughie, and won’t have much chance to now.
Audra McDonald broke a record for Tony wins as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Don’t miss her “incandescent performance,” which HBO taped live at New Orleans’ Cafe Brasil. It will air beginning this Saturday at 9pm EST.