The hours do not go flying by in The New Group’s revival of David Rabe’s brutal satire, Sticks and Bones. Vietnam haunts this play and, like the war itself, the scenes bleed out slowly, demanding our attention. This is a strong production of a very dated show. When it premiered at the Public Theater in 1971, the country was mired in the war. The shootings at Kent State were an open wound and the Pentagon Papers had just been published. In New York City, the murder rate was three times what it is today, a financial crisis was looming, and Frank Serpico exposed widespread corruption within the city police department. The comparatively comfy audience of 2014, taking their seats after hearing a little mellow jazz in the lobby of the Pershing Square Signature Center, has no rage in need of release and the resulting lack of connection with the material is palpable.
Sticks is surely a war story, but not just about Vietnam. Rabe, like the other up and comers of his time, such as Edward Albee and Sam Shepard, were seeking absurdist ways to explore morality and the domestic human condition and, being white males, they were much concerned about what exactly it meant to be one. Thus, when young David (Ben Schnetzer), returns home to a seemingly idyllic household after being blinded in battle, he screams in terror at what would otherwise be comforting. His parents, Ozzie (Bill Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter), seem on the surface to be as happy a couple as the TV family they are named after, and kid brother Rick (Raviv Ullman), when not snacking on fudge, strums his guitar, carefree. But the horrors of home prove just as traumatic as the battlefield when we see that David would gladly do away with a father who finds no purpose in life, and a mother loyally devoted to religion and housekeeping. Even seemingly pure Rick, it turns out, spends his nights in sin. David’s blindness operates on multiple levels. He is blind to color, haven fallen for a “yellow woman” overseas. He is the classically Shakespearean blind man who sees things all too well. And he echoes Sophocles’ Oedipus in his hatred for his father and a disturbing violation of his mother.
Pullman is excellent. His Ozzie is always one beat away from going mental. Placid conversations with his son seamlessly become racist, vitriolic confrontations. Numerous, deeply explored monologues express his confusion at what it means to be a man and a father. He never grows comfortable with his living room chair, that traditional seat of power. Late in the show, as he heads out the door to get away for a while, Rick asks if he’s going out and Ozzie responds. “Looks like it.” Pullman ingeniously spins the line in a way suggesting that his leaving is totally beyond his control. It is a vocally demanding role and, a month into the run, there is some strain in the actor’s voice giving him a pleasingly raspy tone, reminiscent of Eli Wallach, that works to his advantage. Holly Hunter is a trickier case. Her best performances are usually the ones where her characters are self-involved, allowing the actress to work within her own quirky bubble (See The Piano, or more recently her insane turn in Top of The Lake). Here, she is called upon to be a caretaker of an exploding family and though she goes about it with a workmanlike precision, both her comic scenes and her attempts at loving interaction seem less than fully realized. Ullman, meanwhile nearly steals the show with his hilarious performance. Under the sage direction of Scott Elliott, his Rick pulls a perfectly tuned turn of character right at moment when it can cause the most damage. And Richard Chamberlain shows up in the classic helpless-priest role. No stranger to portraying a man of the cloth, and looking and sounding 30 years younger than the man of 80 he is, he provides the perfect cameo role for a production staged as a fractured sit-com, with a family much in need of a blessing.
Sticks and Bones – by David Rabe; Directed by Scott Elliott.
WITH: Richard Chamberlain (Father Donald), Nadia Gan (Zung), Holly Hunter (Harriet), Morocco Omari (Sergeant Major), Bill Pullman (Ozzie), Ben Schnetzer (David) and Raviv Ullman (Rick).
Scenic design by Derek McLane; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; projections by Olivia Sebesky; fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House; production supervisor, PRF Productions; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson; associate artistic director, Ian Morgan; presented by the New Group; at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200, Through December 14, thenewgroup.org, Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.