'Buried Child': Theater Review

Buried Child -Ed Harris and Paul Sparks- H 2016
Courtesy of Monique Carboni
Shepard's excessive symbolism feels far too obvious in this tepid production.

Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Nat Wolff and Taissa Farmiga star in this off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Seeing Sam Shepard's Buried Child again, 20 years after its last major New York production, is akin to one of the principal themes of the play: You can't go home again. What once seemed so provocative, so daring in its assault on the American family and society in general, now comes across as windy and pretentious, willfully obscure and ponderous with symbolism. At least, that's how it plays in the New Group's off-Broadway revival, with a star-laden cast including Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and such high-profile young movie and television stars as Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) and Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story).

Winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize, the play is set in Illinois in a rundown house inhabited by elderly patriarch Dodge (Harris), a sickly alcoholic constantly clamoring for his "bottle"; his wife Halie (Madigan), still mourning the loss of a son she idolized and thinks was murdered by his wife; their mentally challenged son Tilden (House of Cards' Paul Sparks); and his menacing brother Bradley (Mad Men's Rich Sommer), who wears a prosthetic leg to replace the one he lost in a chainsaw accident.

Shortly into the proceedings, the abusive Dodge, prone to falling asleep on his tattered couch, wakes up to find himself covered in corn husks that Tilden claims to have retrieved from the backyard, even though the crop hasn't grown there in 35 years. Later, Bradley sneaks in while he's sleeping and removes his father's ever-present baseball cap to oh-so-symbolically and savagely cut his hair.

The play's second act features the arrival of Tilden's twentysomething son Vince (Wolff), who has shown up unexpectedly with his girlfriend Shelly (Farmiga) to visit his grandparents, unaware that his father is also there. Neither Dodge nor Tilden recognizes him at first, and things only get stranger from there. Shortly afterwards, Halie returns after being away for several days, accompanied by a nervous priest (Larry Pine) with whom she has a suspicious closeness.

The dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics — which include Shelly displaying a newfound aggressiveness in response to Bradley's taunts and Vince suddenly reclaiming his role in the family that doesn't seem to want him — touches on themes ranging from the breakdown of the nuclear family to the economic plight of the family farm to the collapse of societal morality. It's all laid on thickly, especially the climactic revelations about such acts as incest and infanticide. But it goes down fairly easily because of the broad touches of absurdist humor, reflecting such influences as Pinter and Beckett.

But for Buried Child to have the desired impact, it must be presented with a bracing theatricality that this tame production never musters. Director Scott Elliott gives the work a naturalistic treatment that only emphasizes its strained aspects, failing to make even the horrifying final image register with much force.

The performances are somewhat disappointing as well. Although Harris is very amusing with his droll delivery — he utters the phrase "bookoos of money" as if he was speaking a foreign language — he's too vital to suggest the ravaged figure he's playing. Rather than seeming barely able to muster up the energy to leave his couch, his Dodge seems so robust that you're surprised not to see him go out for a jog. Madigan, too, lacks sufficient intensity in her approach, her mannered affectations more appropriate for Tennessee Williams than Shepard.

Wolff and Farmiga, the latter making her theatrical debut, reveal their lack of experience in their tentative characterizations, with Wolff particularly ineffective in conveying Vince's sudden reclaiming of his misbegotten heritage. Sommer is too restrained as Bradley, who should be far creepier. Only Sparks, who has specialized in playing misfits throughout his venerable stage career, seems fully in tune with Shepard's gothic vision.

The three-act play has been condensed into one, running a fleet 105 minutes sans intermission. But the truncation has the unintended overall effect of making the action less immersive. What should feel like a very long day's journey into night feels more like a quick visit with relatives from whom you can't get away fast enough.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Larry Pine, Rich Sommer, Paul Sparks, Nat Wolf
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Jeremy S. Bloom
Presented by the New Group