It would be nice to live in a world where Sam Shepard’s plays were hopelessly dated. Sadly, the writer’s 1977 absurdist dark comedy Curse of the Starving Class, dealing with themes of family dysfunction, the class divide and the rapaciousness of capitalism, feels all too timely in the Signature Theatre’s superbly acted off-Broadway revival. And if all that sounds too painful to endure, be advised there’s an adorable live lamb onstage.
Shepard’s plays are tricky balancing acts. They need to be staged by directors and actors in touch with the late playwright‘s distinctive, off-kilter vision. That’s certainly the case with this production. Featuring no marquee names save for Maggie Siff, whose TV work has included Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy and the current Showtime series Billions, the play has been staged by Terry Kinney, co-founder of Chicago’s Steppenwolf and a veteran of many Shepard plays as both actor and director.
There’s nothing subtle about this rendition, which feels perfectly appropriate. The first few seconds feature a coup de théâtre involving designer Julian Crouch’s stunning set that instantly signals the spiritual and physical disintegration of the family at the play’s core.
Matriarch Ella (Siff) is fed up with her drunken husband, Weston (David Warshofsky), and is secretly arranging with a sleazy lawyer (Andrew Rothenberg) to sell the land beneath their crumbling home. Daughter Emma (Lizzy DeClement), whose first menstrual cycle is prominently remarked upon, is literally dragged through the mud by a rebellious horse. Son Wesley (Gilles Geary) desperately tries to maintain the workings of the family farm, although his methods are suspect. When one of the lambs develops maggots, Wesley installs the animal in a makeshift cage set up in the kitchen — cue the audience “oohs” and “awws.”
The perpetually empty refrigerator, into which the characters repeatedly peer forlornly, as if simply staring will cause it to be stocked, becomes a symbol of the hunger afflicting them, which is not only physical. Weston attempts to alleviate the emptiness by bringing home a bag of artichokes he’s purchased during a road trip in the desert, but the smell of the vegetables boiling proves too repulsive even for him. The action takes place entirely in the kitchen, but that doesn’t prevent Wesley from casually urinating on his sister’s school project or Weston from taking a drunken nap on the kitchen table.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” complains Ella at one point. But that’s not true of the play itself, which constantly surprises with the bizarre incidents and characters thrown into its chaotic mix. Those include Ellis (Esau Pritchett), the owner of a local bar who swindles Weston out of his property with the plan of turning it into a steak house and pitch-and-putt golf course; Malcolm (a hilariously deadpan Flora Diaz in a role normally played by a man), a police officer who reports Emma’s latest transgression; and a pair of thugs (double-cast Pritchett and Rothenberg) who instigate a shocking act of violence at the play’s end.
Truth be told, a little of the quirky surrealism goes a long way, and it can feel repetitive over the course of two and a half hours. Kinney could have picked up the pace faster, and the decision to condense the first two acts results in an overly long, 90-minute first half. Nonetheless, the work’s raw power and bleak humor resonate strongly, thanks to the ensemble’s fully invested performances.
Although Siff’s naturally elegant beauty would seem to make her a bad fit for the bedraggled Ella, the actress throws herself into the role, displaying a gift for physical comedy when Ella climbs on top of her sleeping husband and fruitlessly attempts to wake him. Warshofsky is outstanding as the husband who undergoes an unlikely spiritual transformation; Geary delivers a mesmerizingly intense turn as the emotionally damaged son; and Pritchett oozes charismatic physicality as the unscrupulous Ellis.
By the time Curse of the Starving Class reaches its wrenching conclusion, you’ll feel thoroughly wrung out. Shepard, no doubt, would have been very pleased.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center
Cast: Lizzy DeClement, Flora Diaz, Gilles Geary, Esau Pritchett, Andrew Rothenberg, Maggie Siff, David Warshofsky
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Terry Kinney
Set designer: Julian Crouch
Costume designer: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Music and sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by Signature Theatre