Sam Shepard — whose rugged good looks have landed him many on-screen roles, including the current Netflix series Bloodline — was first acclaimed as a playwright. And what acclaim, going back now for something like 50 years!
He began accumulating kudos Off-Off-Broadway but didn’t have his first full Broadway exposure (not counting his contribution to Oh! Calcutta!) until the 1990s. He remained a downtown scribe for so long that he accumulated 10 Obies between 1966 and 1984. He earned an Obie for Buried Child even before it had a production in Manhattan, a citation that seemed corroborated when it earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
That same Buried Child is back, in Scott Elliott’s New Group production Off-Broadway at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. This follows its 1978 showing at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, then Manhattan’s Theater for the New City, then a quick transfer to the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel), then the Broadway revival (and Shepard’s Main Stem debut) in 1996.
The question that arises with this new take on the play — shown in an intermissionless 95-or-so minutes, not the usual three acts — is “How does it hold up?” It’s asked, of course, on the assumption that Buried Child reached such award-nabbing heights legitimately in the first place. Here I’ll lodge what I have to assume is a minority objection.
Although I was a reviewer for The Village Voice at the time of Buried Child, I wasn’t on the awards committee for the Obies. (The late Ross Wetzsteon, the Voice’s longtime theater editor and a rabid fan of Shepard, was.) So when the East Coast performances began, I was eager, like many others, to see what the huzzahs were about.
I was disappointed. On the other hand, I’m quick to say that I, like many others, had a high opinion of Shepard. I’d raced to see the early one-acts, among them Red Cross and La Turista (some featuring Joyce Aaron, Shepard’s girlfriend at the time) and responded to his pungent new voice. I was decidedly a vocal partisan of Shepard’s 1976 Curse of the Starving Class.
What I admired in Shepard was what everyone who championed him admired: his acid depiction of the disintegration of America, often by attacking the decline of the West. Shepard saw the American family falling apart. If much of American theater is given to exploring, if not explaining, family dysfunction, Shepard found a trenchant new perspective on a widespread catastrophe.
But there’s a thin line between examining the same theme from different angles and repeating oneself. When I got to Buried Child, I felt that Shepard had crossed the line with this family portrait. I felt as if I’d already been there, done that. It seemed as if he were marking time.
The first person seen in Buried Child is Dodge (Ed Harris) — in Elliott’s version, he’s seen the minute the audience arrives. Cap on head, he’s seated on a living room sofa expressionlessly facing a television. And there he sits for well over a half-hour before the action, such as it is, begins. By that time, Elliott — and Shepard — have long made the point that we’ve become a nation of couch potatoes.
When the lights signal that the play has begun, Dodge gets into a nattering, vaguely funny conversation with wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who’s upstairs and unseen. (Derek McLane supplied the appropriately grubby set.) Shortly, Vince (Nat Wolff) arrives with his unhappy traveling companion, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga). He’s told her that it would behoove them to see the family that he hasn’t visited in several years.
The hitch is that Dodge appears to have no recollection of any Vince in the family circle. He does have two other sons: Bradley (Rich Sommer), whose artificial right leg eventually becomes detached and carried about, and Tilden (Paul Sparks), who wanders in and out in a generally catatonic state and who, after some time, produces, or seems to produce, the titular buried child. (This macabre appearance evidently represents pesky family secrets.) Father Dewis (Larry Pine), a cleric from a parish nearby, drops in with a bunch of yellow flowers for Halie.
The characters interact — or fail to — which gets Shelly to whining and prompts the others to behave badly. This is certainly not atypical of Shepard, who’s partial to having his figures become destructive. Vince, relatively contained for much of the 95 minutes, does indulge in a violent bottle-throwing jag and later indicates that he’ll be the next generation’s Dodge. Verbal attacking occurs as well, and in between scenes the production’s sound designer, Jeremy S. Bloom, heaves forth a heavy symbolic rain to underscore the bad psychological weather. The flowers are never sullied.
I know it’s possible with even the best plays to provide a summary that makes them sound tiresomely mundane — and yes, that’s what the above paragraphs could be doing. Perhaps I should mention that my theatergoing companion believes the strictly realistic nature of this production was the problem, that if director Elliott had introduced somehow a sense of myth, which critics often suggest is what underpins Shepard’s plays, he’d have a more successful piece. I’m not convinced. Sometimes myth turns things into pretense.
Despite the cast’s tangy performances, Buried Child is mundane. I still think Shepard repeated himself, rather than add to his committed and singular vision in Curse of the Starving Class, True West and A Lie of the Mind, where he also finds ways to elaborate on his somber convictions.
Better, also, not to press me on Shepard’s more recent The Late Henry Moss, Kicking a Dead Horse, Heartless and A Particle of Thread. The only comment to be made about them, as well as Buried Child, is that a dramatist can be deemed important without all of his plays being top-drawer.