A fine but wayward cast led by Ed Harris and Amy Madigan makes an almost unwatchable mess of Sam Shepard’s ferocious drama Buried Child. I can report this with some confidence not only because any revival of this play comes with the imprimatur of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize, but because images from both the original Off Broadway production in 1978 and the 1996 Steppenwolf revival that transferred from Chicago to Broadway remain etched indelibly in my memory. The New Group’s production, staged by artistic director Scott Elliott, may leave audiences thinking this utterly original American horror story is a tepid hash of warmed-over Pinter and O’Neill.
I’ve noted before that I’m generally opposed to comparing revivals to earlier productions — what the hell does the audience care about whether a performance from the past struck the reviewer as better? And I won’t do that here, because it’s not the company that seems to have misread the work, but an overall concept that’s befuddled and diffuse.
Buried Child is set in the shabby farmhouse living room where Dodge (Harris), an impotent alcoholic cipher of a man, barely co-exists with his extroverted wife Halie (Madigan), who spends much of the opening unseen, calling from an upstairs bedroom to her husband, sprawled on the couch watching TV and sneaking gulps from the bottle he keeps stashed under a pillow. Dodge is soon joined by elder son Tilden (Paul Sparks, of Boardwalk Empire), who has returned to the nest after some aimless travel and jail time. He enters from the kitchen with an armful of freshly picked corn from the backyard, even as his parents insist that nothing has grown there in decades.
Halie leaves for a date with her lover, Father Dewis (Larry Pine, House Of Cards); Tilden heads back out into nature and Bradley (Rich Sommer of Mad Men), one-legged son number two, arrives, electric shaver in hand, to give his sleeping father a haircut that leaves him partially scalped.
When Tilden’s son Vince (Nat Wolff, The Fault In Our Stars) arrives with his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story), he can’t understand why no one recognizes him; it’s only been six years since Vince saw his Dad and grandparents. Dodge insults Shelly, and Father Dewis, who’s arrived with Halie after their overnight revels, fumbles any attempt to calm the unraveling of this increasingly sinister, bleak family reunion. Tilden shows up again, this time with an armful of carrots. A family secret has been mentioned that must finally be revealed: Whatever it is lies beneath the suddenly, mysteriously fecund earth.
Yes, there are echoes of Pinter’s The Homecoming and even O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But if the young Shepard was working off any model, it would probably be Arthur Miller. Buried Child is a family melodrama in which an American dream — of abundance, fruitfulness, familial love — is subsumed in a putrifying reality that can only pass down from one generation to the next.
All sense of this is absent from Elliott’s production, which speeds by in a single act as if to caution us against thinking too hard about how clueless it is. Taken on individual merit, several performances achieve some resonance, particularly Harris, who regularly proves himself a fantastic interpreter of characters who are really scary (as he was in Beth Henley’s The Jacksonians, also presented by the New Group). Derek McLane’s seedy set is the production’s best-selling point as Vince fades into the yellowed wallpaper and grimed windows, the real buried child of the title. No one gets out of here alive.
By way of stark contrast, Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People, having its New York premiere at Second Stage, is so bristling with ideas that any nits I’d pick with the dramaturgy pale in light of the pleasure it provided. Diamond is the author of the under-appreciated Stick Fly, seen a few years ago on Broadway.
Her subject then as now is one virtually neglected through the rest of American contemporary theater: Non-white people who are, as the title suggests, smart — and well-educated, ambitious, angry, horny, conflicted and generally pissed off. Throw in one white guy intent on exploding some conventional, tightly held liberal myths, and you have tinder waiting for the match, which Diamond happily and satisfyingly provides.
This sexy Harvard Yard quadrille is performed by a superb cast under Kenny Leon’s coaxing, sympathetic direction (hard on the heels of his staging of The Wiz Live for NBC). Jackson (House Of Cards‘ Mahershala Ali) is a young doctor who bristles at the hazing of medical internship and supervisors who punish him for independent thinking. Ginny (Anne Son, My Generation) is Chinese-Japanese American and a tenured psychology professor intent on debunking stereotypes, particularly of Asian women (“I don’t date,” she says. “I just sleep around. But because I’m a slut. Not because I’m Asian”). Valerie (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People) is a young black graduate of Harvard’s drama school, intent on playing the classical roles she’s been trained for.
And then there’s Brian (The Affair‘s Joshua Jackson), a white “neuro-psychiatrist” who has been a rainmaker for his department, bringing in lots of research grants until his latest project, which is proving that white racism has a genetic component separate from cultural conditioning — a theory that has alienated him from the administration, colleagues and the scientific community.
These four get together and recombine in various configurations as they sort out their issues, vent their disappointments and frustrations and struggle above all to be whole human beings. Also they tend to speechify, which is a Diamond trademark in much the way speechifying is a Shaw trademark or a Stoppard trademark. I didn’t care, because the speeches were engrossing, reaching for more than the dropping of brand names and accumulation of stuff that passes for too much contemporary theater. Smart People is a great ride; I loved every talky minute of it.