Photo by Matthew Murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

More than a particle of dread should attend any inclination to venture into Sam Shepard’s latest, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street.  To say it was freighted with pretension is almost harsh enough.

One of the lines shrieked at the audience, delivered by Annalee (Judith Roddy), demands someone “Piss on Sophocles’s head”–and they certainly did.

You will remember that, for Oedipus Rex, Sophocles honed a complicated plot fraught with oracles, blind poets, riddles, and enigmas, with plagues and sphinxes in the backstory.  So, what prompted Shepard to incorporate shape-shifters and time travelers into an already obtuse plot, one can only wonder.

And yet, the auguries were promising.  Shepard’s certainly delivered before: a Pulitzer for Buried Child, hosannas for True West and Fool for Love, and more. Signature’s James Houghton and Erika Mallin have given us whole seasons devoted to our best and brightest: Albee, Guare, Foote, Hwang, Kushner and many more.

The other major player in Particle is the well-regarded Field Day, the artistic collaboration between playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea that, unless you share Shepard’s reported fascination with contemporary Irish theater, you may not recognize. They are perhaps best known in New York for their production of Friel’s Translations in 1980.

Particle of Dread had a go-round about this time last year in Ireland.  Director Nancy Meckler, and a fair share of the cast and crew here now, worked on it there: on stage were Stephen Rea, LLoyd Hutchinson, Brid Brennan, and Judith Roddy.  Behind the curtain, so to speak, besides Meckler, was scenic designer Frank Conway who brought his stark set over.  Neil Martin’s original music delivered on a cello made the trip as well.

All the Irish on the set may account for the occasional confusion of accents.  Of course, in the sea of confusion presented here, quibbling about accents seems small beer.

About halfway into the ninety-minute presentation my guest and I–and, I realized, a good share of the audience–took to shifting about in our seats.  We were trying to straighten up, pay attention, and “find the key” to this puzzle before us.

I was grateful to a woman nearby who was coughing.  Early on, I’d passed her a Riccola–but then withheld my supply.  I’d come to rely on her to keep me awake.

When we finally got to the end, the applause pattern was telling.  You know the sound of applause that mimics reluctant rain?  The audience doesn’t so much want to punish the cast taking the stage, as they wish to end the encounter politely.   Even so, we noted, there is always–no matter how disappointing the work on the boards–there is always one Yahoo (in the Swiftian sense) who leaps to his feet hoping to stir a standing ovation.  Lucky man, none of us was armed.

A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) – by Sam Shepard; directed by Nancy Meckler.

WITH: Stephen Rea (Oedipus/Otto), Lloyd Hutchinson (Uncle Del/Traveler/Tiresias/Maniac of the Outskirts), Aidan Redmond (Laius/Larry/Langos), Brid Brennan (Jocasta/Jocelyn), Jason Kolotouros (Officer Harrington), Matthew Rauch (Forensic Investigator RJ Randolph), Judith Roddy (Antigone/Annalee).

Neil Martin provided original music and plays cello.  Todd Livingston plays the Dobro slide guitar.

Designed by Frank Conway; costumes by Lorna Marie Mugan; Michael Chybowski handles lighting and Jill BC Du Boff the sound.  Presented by Signature Theatre and Field Day at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., Manhattan. Through January 4th.  Running time 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission.