By Stanford Friedman
The 1978, Pulitzer Prize winning play Buried Child is Sam Shepard’s best work, a brutal collision between 70’s recession era defeat and 1960’s absurdism. It’s a tale about ancestry and inheritance in which Shepard echoes his own literary forefathers, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. The New Group does Shepard proud with this deep, dark revival, led by Ed Harris who turns in a masterful and rugged performance, even while his character is unable to stand up under his own power.
Harris plays Dodge, the failed and withering patriarch of a family that is…well…let’s just say that dysfunctional would be too kind a word. Dodge’s wife, Halie (Amy Madigan), is only a disembodied voice when we first meet her, babbling on endlessly from an unseen upstairs bedroom, while Dodge tolerates her with cynicism, grunts and swigs of rot gut. Their grown-up offspring include Bradley (Rich Sommer), an inept task master who cut off his own leg with a chainsaw, and Tilden (Paul Sparks), a mentally unbalanced wanderer with a penchant for finding trouble and vegetables. There is a third, dearly departed, son whom Halie immortalizes and mythologizes (Who can blame her?). And there is, of course, the title character, the dirty little secret out in the back yard that caused all this fuss. Actually, the title operates on a few different levels. Most of the adults we meet here are buried children in their own way. Dodge wants nothing more than his blankie and his bottle. Tilden is awkward and scared, while Bradley is a classic bully. As a heavy rain pours down behind scenic designer Derek McLane’s fine, mud brown living room, Halie runs off for a date with the local priest, leaving the problem kids to their own devices, though not before delivering a bit of meta-humor. Discovering that Tilden has somehow shown up with an armload of corn, she gives voice to just what the audience is wondering, “What’s is the meaning of this corn, Tilden!”
Harris, on stage the entire time, though sometimes passed out under his blanket, employs a growling voice full of gravelly pathos. “I’m descended from a long line of corpses and there’s not a living soul behind me.” he snarls, and indeed we witness him sink away to nothing, having lost all connection with his wife, his health, and the once fertile farmland around his home. Sparks goes the opposite route, making Tilden ever creepier with his polite, soft-spoken manner, not afraid to resort to the occasional faint whisper, with the audience clinging to his every weird word.
There are three other characters in the play, interlopers who get more than they bargain for, and they make for an interesting study in casting. Vince (Nat Wolff) is Tilden’s son and he shows up with his girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), for a surprise visit. They seem to be a normal, happy couple, until setting foot in this haunted house that, before you know it, transforms them into messed up schemers. Shelly is the only one brave enough to sit in Halie’s chair, though she has to suffer through Bradley physically violating her before finding the courage. Vince abandons her there, but returns in time to make Dodge’s blanket his own. He wears it over his shoulders like the newly appointed king he now is. Neither performer has logged much previous stage time, but the choice to use inexperienced actors here is a gamble that pays off, with their nervous, awkward energy creating just the right dramatic tension.
This is in contrast to Father Dewis (Larry Pine), Halie’s holy boy toy. Pine is a veteran character actor and his stately and instantly recognizable presence amplifies the gag that Lewis is there to present, that given a family with deep emotional problems, a dash for the front door is the clergy’s best and only response. The one man calling himself father is the most helpless of them all.
Rhythm can be everything in a play that twists and warps as much as this one. Happily, director Scott Elliott not only nails the pacing, he flaunts it. With an assist from sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom, a leaking ceiling sends a slow steady drip drip drip into a metal bucket. It serves as a metronome, pacing out Dodge’s sad final hours amid the chaos of family.
Buried Child – By Sam Shepard; Directed by Scott Elliott.
WITH: Taissa Farmiga (Shelly), Ed Harris (Dodge), Amy Madigan (Halie), Larry Pine (Father Dewis), Rich Sommer (Bradley), Paul Sparks (Tilden) and Nat Wolff (Vince).
Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design by Jeremy S. Bloom; Production Stage Manager, Valerie A. Peterson. Presented by The New Group (Scott Elliott, Artistic Director; Adam Bernstein, Executive Director) at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200, http://www.thenewgroup.org/buried-child.html. Through April 3. Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes.