Sam Shepard had already been writing for the theater for 14 years when Buried Child won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. The play — his 23rd or so, depending on how you count — was both a distillation and a departure, applying the cruel poetry of earlier, experimental works like Geography of a Horse Dreamer and The Tooth of Crime to a more traditional genre: the family drama. The result was a willfully scalding indictment of both halves at that phrase, the family and the drama, which he saw as more or less co-dependent. Shepard recently told the Times that, in the wake of Long Day’s Journey Into Night — “the greatest play ever written in America” — he was fed up with its genre and, more generally, with psychology as a basis for understanding personal history or national character. “Because this and that happened, you wet the bed? Who cares? Who cares when there’s a dead baby in the backyard?”
Taking down Papa O’Neill was not perhaps so shocking after a decade or two of antiestablishment dramaturgy. But the shadow of Oedipus hangs over more than just the construction of Buried Child. The ancient story of paternal rivalry (and maternal taboo) is baked into the plot. Unfortunately, and despite two excellent performances, neither story seems terribly urgent in the New Group’s limp revival at the Signature Center. As Dodge, the dying alcoholic head of a Midwest farm family that has long since stopped farming, Ed Harris, all gaunt charisma, brings specificity and gravity to a role that can sometimes seem merely symbolic: He is the failure of American manhood. And as Halie, Dodge’s wife, Amy Madigan imbues that chatterbox harridan with an angry dignity that helps balance the tale even if it does not always seem authorized. That the pair also seems definitively enmeshed is a tribute to their attachment onstage — and off, as Harris and Madigan are married in real life. Like married people everywhere, they do not need to see each other, or even listen much, to know whom they’re stuck with.
Once we get past Dodge and Halie, though, the production starts to wobble. This is partly inherent in the storytelling, which grows more poetic yet also more obvious as it departs from the archetypal parents. Their two living sons, Tilden and Bradley, are not so much actual humans as symbols of catastrophe, both interior and exterior: Bradley (Rich Sommer) is, apparently, a self-amputee, goose-stepping around on a prosthetic left leg; Tilden (Paul Sparks) is a potentially psychopathic half-wit. (He has returned unwanted to the family homestead after unspecified bad doings got him “kicked out of” New Mexico.) There is no love lost among any of the four, a fact that renders Sommer and Sparks, though they are both quite good, almost inert. Were it not for the arrival of Mysterious Others the actions of the story might consist solely of things the sons do to their father while he’s asleep and can offer no resistance. (Bradley gives him an unwanted haircut; Tilden “buries” him under a scattering of cornhusks.) The facts of a terrible past, including incest and infanticide, are gradually unearthed but are neither news nor progress. When Tilden advises Dodge that “you have to talk or you’ll die,” you may wonder, as Dodge does, whether any real option has been offered.
But at the beginning of Act Two — the play’s three acts are performed here in one intermissionless two-hour swoop — those Mysterious Others do arrive to jolt the action. One is the twentyish Vince, who says he is Tilden’s son and has come from New York to visit his grandparents. No one recognizes him. The other is Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly, an American cousin to those Pinter women, like Ruth in The Homecoming, who quickly get the upper hand in their borrowed families. (As symbols go, her theft of Bradley’s prosthesis is none too subtle.) But the sudden gear shift when they arrive, however welcome in terms of pace, pushes this production, even more than usual, into tonal incoherence. As sketched by Nat Wolff of the Naked Brothers Band, Vince’s increasing desperation to be acknowledged takes on an unwanted sitcom edge: He is too green and ingratiating to offer any real threat. And as Shelly, Taissa Farmiga, a young movie and television actress making her stage debut, sounds like she’s on an episode of Girls.
It’s tempting to blame the director, Scott Elliott — and certainly the unaligned acting styles count against him. (The physical production, however, with its saggy-beamed living room and baleful light, is terrific.) But I wonder if something else is also going on. A 1995 Steppenwolf production, seen on Broadway in 1996, was so beautifully cast and expertly performed, top to bottom, that it may have disguised the disintegrating foundations of the play itself. Those footings are all too visible now. Buried Child is a play about a secret that isn’t one (it’s revealed in the title) and, as Shepard intended, a living-room play reduced to ashes, with no one left living inside it. The tear-down impulse that motivated its creation seems to have consumed itself, in the manner of much symbolic (and reactionary) art. In that regard it’s telling that Shepard’s Fool for Love, a more psychological story written just five years later, still holds up beautifully, as its recent Broadway revival proved. Perhaps, after all, we do care about “this and that” happening, and what results. We (and O’Neill) call it drama.
Buried Child is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 3.