A Lie of the Mind -- Theater Review

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When it premiered a quarter-century ago, Sam Shepard's self-directed production of his "A Lie of the Mind" clocked in at four hours, including two intermissions. The current off-Broadway revival, the first major one to play New York since the original, comes in at a relatively streamlined three hours, with one intermission. So why does it feel so much longer?

It's not that there's any lack of talent involved in this effort by the New Group. The director is Ethan Hawke, and the cast -- though inevitably paling in comparison to the original roster that included Harvey Keitel, Aidan Quinn, Geraldine Page, Amanda Plummer and Will Patton -- is nothing to sneeze at: Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland, Laurie Metcalf, Alessandro Nivola, Maggie Siff, Frank Whaley and, in a nice touch, Karen Young, who appeared in the original production in a different role.

Hawke has demonstrated a real passion in his directing for film ("Chelsea Walls") and stage ("Things We Want"), and he clearly has an affinity for Shepard's work. Indeed, this production fairly bursts with atmosphere, from the marvelously bric-a-brac-cluttered set -- even the walls and ceiling are littered with it -- to the ominously moody score provided by an onstage musical duo.

Part of the problem lies with the play itself, which now seems overly attenuated and fragmented in its exploration of the fissures of family life. What originally seemed wildly ambitious and theatrical now feels overstuffed or, as the playwright himself put it in a recent interview, "rickety."

The story line revolves around two families who become intertwined through a brutal act of violence. The abusive Jake (Nivola) has beaten his wife, Beth (Ireland), so severely that he thinks she's dead. His concerned brother Frankie (Hamilton) leaves him in the hands of their mother (Young) and sister (Siff) to discover the truth for himself.

He finds Beth at her parents' home, suffering from brain damage and being cared for by her mother (Metcalf) and hot-headed brother (Whaley), intent on revenge. Unfortunately, Frankie has been shot in the leg along the way, mistaken for a deer by Beth's hunting-obsessed father (Carradine).

Shifting in action between the dysfunctional families, Shepard creates an alternately amusing and haunting portrait of people who have been irreparably damaged even while desperately clinging to old-fashioned beliefs and comforting rituals (a key scene involves Beth's parents carefully folding an American flag).

Despite the efforts of all concerned, the production never really comes to organic life, too often resembling a series of acting workshops rather than a fully formed world. There's nothing particularly wrong with any of the performances, but they mainly lack the compelling, larger-than-life intensity -- think Malkovich or Will Patton -- that can make Shepard's characters so memorable. Whaley at least tries for a certain extremity, and Ireland is haunting as the damaged Beth, but the rest of the actors more often are simply competent rather than truly arresting.

Hawke also seems to be trying too hard for effect. The original production featured the terrific Red Clay Ramblers, whose jaunty, old-style string music provided a welcome counterpoint to the proceedings. Here, the ominous background score merely accentuates the work's more pretentious qualities.

"Mind" is well worth seeing, if only because it is so infrequently performed these days. But though it's easy to admire the intent of this rendition, it's also hard not to wish that its ambitions had been more fully realized.

Venue: Acorn Theatre, New York (Through March 20)
Production: The New Group.
Cast: Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland, Laurie Metcalf, Alessandro Nivola, Maggie Siff, Frank Whaley, Karen Young
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Ethan Hawke
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Shane Rettig
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