Review: Caustic 'Sticks and Bones' still bites

AP News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2014 8:09 PM
Review: Caustic 'Sticks and Bones' still bites

NEW YORK (AP) — More than four decades ago, young American men were drafted into the U.S. Army and forced to either go fight in the jungles of Vietnam or face jail time. Most people reluctantly watched that unpopular war play out every night on the news.

Playwright David Rabe ("The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," ''Streamers" and "Hurlyburly") skillfully captured the national malaise of the late 1960s in his caustic drama "Sticks and Bones," about a deliberately war-obtuse America, that won a best play Tony Award for its 1972 Broadway debut.

The New Group has mounted a searing revival that seems as unfortunately relevant as ever, with Americans currently weary of wars in the Middle East. Radiating the disturbing energy of Rabe's original post-Vietnam-tour anger, the dark comedy opened Thursday off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

The large TV in the household of this play doesn't seem to show the evening news, only old movies that distract and calm the oblivious family members. So when oldest son David returns home blinded from fighting in Vietnam, filled with anger and guilt over atrocities he's seen and loathing himself for abandoning a Vietnamese woman that he loved, his family is primarily annoyed with him for disrupting their placid, lily-white suburban lives.

New Group artistic director Scott Elliott has staged the play with careful attention to the simultaneous unraveling of each character as they attempt to obliterate the sorrow David has brought home. Although the play feels too long, it slowly imprints on the audience, as David experiences repeated rejections from his family while trying to explain the terrible realities he's seen.

Ben Schnetzer oozes disgust and vague menace as David, a pajama-clad alien moping behind dark sunglasses. His brooding presence upstairs in his boyhood room casts a pall over his shocked and ignorant family, who just want things to return to the way they were.

Rabe has twisted patriarch Ozzie into a paranoid, frightened bigot, and Bill Pullman memorably imbues him with a furtive, weasely persona. Blandly nurturing, food-obsessed mom Harriet is so robotically perky, (an intense, tautly wound portrayal by Holly Hunter), that we almost expect to see a giant key sticking out of her back.

An apparently ageless Richard Chamberlain is well-cast in a small role as an unctuous Roman Catholic priest oozing hollow empathy. Raviv Ullman is happily annoying as witless, guitar-wearing Ricky, who thinks his older brother is now a huge nuisance. Representing the foreign human casualties of war is Nadia Gan, drifting around the house as Zung, a ghost from David's Vietnam memories.

Not much seems to have changed regarding the dehumanization of our enemies. Although the subject of their name-calling has mutated, the casual racism voiced by Ozzie and Harriet sounds both quaint and unfortunately contemporary. There's no smoothing some of the jagged edges of the uncomfortable truths on display here.

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Online: http://www.thenewgroup.org/sticks-and-bones.html