Entertainment » Theatre

Buried Child

by Maya Phillips
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Feb 17, 2016
Taissa Farmiga, Nat Wolff and Ed Harris
Taissa Farmiga, Nat Wolff and Ed Harris  

Twenty years after its last major New York production, Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Buried Child" has returned, directed by Scott Elliott and now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

The play, which was first produced and awarded the Pulitzer in the 1970s, bears the mark of its time, which by no means limits or hinders the play in any way. At a time when America was recoiling from the picturesque ideals of the 1940s and 1950s, the simplified, cookie-cutter values of a typical Midwestern family that worked off the land and lived in a farm house that looked like a "Norman Rockwell cover or something" (in the words of the play's central observer, Shelly), "Buried Child" represented a challenge to this "Leave it to Beaver" model of American family life. Indeed, in a mix between a modern Oedipal tragedy and a bitter, black comedy, "Buried Child" takes on assumptions and expectations of the American Dream, the American family and a family's legacy.

What truly makes "Buried Child" engaging is its hybridity; it's seemingly straightforward at parts, existing in the real world, but then it's remarkably surreal and symbolic. In the same token, it oscillates between startling depths of despair and corruption and a humor that, while no less despairing than the moments of darkness, roots itself in a recognition of normalcy (e.g., the normal back-and-forth of an old couple, a sibling rivalry) or lack thereof (e.g., a family that doesn't remember one of its sons, a magical yard).

The play opens with Dodge (Ed Harris) smoking and drinking on the living room couch while his wife, Halie (Amy Madigan), preaches at him about piety and faith while openly having an affair with Father Dewis (Larry Pine) at church. Dodge and Halie's mentally unstable son, Tilden (Paul Sparks), back home after having been banned from New Mexico, somehow collects vegetables from their backyard -- though nothing has grown there for years.

Their other son, Bradley (Rich Sommer), who lost a leg in an accident, shows up at the house to intimidate his family and forcefully give Dodge haircuts in his sleep. When a man named Vince (Nat Wolff) and his girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), appear at the farm house, he claiming to be Tilden's son, no one remembers him, and the family's secret must finally be revealed.

The obvious mechanism behind the play is the family's secret and the question of Vince's identity, but the real treasure is the dualities that complicate the story and whose tension give everything ironic weight. The men in Shepard's both play into and negate the masculine archetype of the American Dream: Dodge, though the father and husband in the household, is helpless and impotent, unable to provide strength or structure to his family, and he is symbolically buried at several times throughout the show; Tilden, though virile, does not have the mental faculties to function on his own; Bradley, while violent and domineering, is also physically handicapped.

The dualities continue: Father Dewis, while a figure of morality and guidance, is having an affair and admits that he also has no power; Halie makes speeches about morality while also indulging in her own sins; and, finally, Vince exists in a grey area, a figure of the past that the family wants to forget and an unavoidable part of the present moment.

The play, in its tonal and metaphoric shifts and its paradoxical characters, must be led by a strong cast of actors to hit every note. Harris, who is already sunken into the couch while the audience fills into the cozy Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, portrays the always gruff, frequently funny and horribly broken Dodge brilliantly. Madigan's Halie is a bit more difficult to peg, for her uncompromising state of self-delusion, but always surprising and believable.

Sommer's Bradley is horrifying in his brutality, and equally believable in his moments of whimpering impotence. Sparks delivers one of the most memorable monologues in the play, if not the most, in Tilden's lyrical, halting attempts to reveal himself and the secret he knows he must keep. The younger cast members, Farmiga and Wolff, hold their own but are not always as steady in their characters as their cast mates. Overall, however, the cast knows how to work with each other, taking their time to set up comedic cues and establish a palpable tension that seems to cling to this picturesque farm house and its tenants.

And that's just it -- the set, with its drab tones and its rainy backdrop in the first acts, confined to a living room and, outside, a road that apparently leads to nowhere; the dialogue, which navigates the line between seen and unseen, what is revealed and what is hidden; a well-performed cast of characters that move through their own contradictions and are drawn together by the horror of their shared secret -- all of it creates a sense of isolation, a one-room-hell that is both laughably absurd and absurdly real at the same time. It all makes for an utterly engaging play that will enjoy a well-deserved off-Broadway engagement this season.

"Buried Child" runs through April 3 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., New York. For information or tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit www.thenewgroup.org.

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