NEW YORK (AP) — There's more than one way to damage a child, as evident in Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," a darkly surreal comedy about the decline of the American family that won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Although Shepard rewrote the play for its 1995-96 Broadway debut, which was nominated for five Tony Awards, his trademark mordant humor, absurdism, primal metaphors and resonant themes of identity and lineage remain.
Scott Elliott applies discipline in directing a wild ride of a harrowing revival for The New Group that opened Wednesday off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Shepard's cleverly crafted and layered drama pits three generations of a shattered, self-destructive Midwestern farm family against one another, as these once-prosperous, self-proclaimed "good people" try to protect a long-buried, ugly secret.
Ed Harris is sublimely cantankerous and engrossing to watch as Dodge, the dying, couch-ridden patriarch. Dodge mumbles humorous, pointed asides to himself and tries to ignore his nattering wife, Halie, who converses piercingly with him from her perch upstairs. Amy Madigan is restrained, taut perfection as Halie, whose nostalgic, often delusional pronouncements in a high, sweet voice belie the vicious barbs she launches when feeling threatened by outsiders.
Halie and Dodge are barely hanging on as their two adult sons have returned home after failing to cope with reality. Shell-shocked Tilden (Paul Sparks) keeps digging up things behind the house and bringing them inside. Sparks is memorably zombie-like as Tilden, a quietly grimy mockery of the once-independent and fruitful American farmer. He appears to be risen from beneath the earth like the bundles of vegetables he hauls around the shabby living room. Rich Sommer charges around like a human fist as Tilden's brother, Bradley, an accidental self-amputee and childish yet menacing one-legged bully.
When Halie leaves for a barely concealed assignation with her priest, Father Dewis, (Larry Pine, easily wearing a mantle of benignly ineffectual authority), things really go haywire. The outsiders who arrive are Tilden's estranged, college-age son Vince (an intense Nat Wolff) and his naive, snippy girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga, radiating innocent confidence). They're shocked when nobody in the family seems to welcome or even recognize Vince.
Wolff engagingly morphs from reunion excitement into frenetic distress, as Vince re-enacts childhood games with his unresponsive father and grandfather until falling into sullen defeat. His character sums up the overall despair of American's failed expectations when Vince says, "Something has fallen apart. This isn't how it used to be."
Shepard's complex ambiguities leave some matters unexplained, while the waning of American resilience, independence and family values is keenly reflected in the lack of affection within this family. They've destroyed themselves in an effort to hide their ugly secret, but it surely can't remain interred much longer.