One of the challenges with producing canonical plays is that, their longevity aside, these big, interesting beasts are often patchier and far less perfect than we think they are. They’ve got status, though, so when their titles come up, our minds tend to go toward questions of production: Who’s going to play so-and-so this time? How will director B’s production differ from director A’s ten years ago? The questions — and the problems — of the plays themselves can get a little lost, and, especially on big stages in big cities, we can end up with handsome, star-studded productions that seem to say to us, “Look! I am an important piece of literature. By watching me, you are having a meaningful cultural experience.” And we are timid, eager animals at heart, so it’s hard to stand up in the face of that kind of messaging and answer, “Well, be that as it may, but in fact, I am bored.”
Sam Shepard’s ugly, dreamy 1978 play Curse of the Starving Class shouldn’t be boring. It’s got explosions and tirades and flying artichokes and a saloon shoot-out (okay, some of those are offstage) and an ill-fated live lamb (very cute and very dangerous: impossible to outact). It should heave and churn with bitter discontent and sloppy ambition, delusion and shame. But it’s a tough, flawed nut, and it’s not profiting from Signature Theatre’s current revival, which mostly plays the unwieldy material straight down the middle. As a result, the play feels diffuse and almost plodding in its long first act, and the lurid transformations and deadly outbursts of its second act are consequently dulled. We can see them and understand their symbolic significance, but our stomachs never really turn.
Director Terry Kinney — who has worked on and with Shepard as both actor and director — starts with a bang: As the lights dim and the preshow music gets louder and more grating, Julian Crouch’s derelict farmhouse kitchen set suddenly splits, big broken sections of its walls rising operatically into the air, pots and pans tumbling from shelves and dangling in space on wires, hovering like found-object mobiles over the dirty floor. It’s a kicker of an opening gesture, and for a moment it raised my hopes of seeing an equally bold and fractured performance. This house, said the show’s beginning, is already destroyed. The very walls hang over the characters like swords of Damocles.
A bit heavy-handed? Perhaps, but Shepard doesn’t pussyfoot around his symbols, and if you’re going to go there, then you might as well go there. But inside this cracked allegorical edifice, Kinney doesn’t push his actors to analogous extremes. They are playing the Tate family (et al.), a poor, unloving Central California clan who insists, despite their constant ritual of staring into the empty refrigerator, that they “don’t belong to the starving class.” Each parent — sharp, guarded Ella (Maggie Siff) and grandiose, violent alcoholic Weston (David Warshofsky) — has a secret scheme to sell the house out from under his or her spouse, then take the money and run. Both children — shambling, unformed Wesley (Gilles Geary) and flinty, fearsome Emma (Lizzy DeClement) — know they’re living in a powder keg. Wesley would like to disarm it, while Emma’s content to see it blow while she rides off into the sunset. There’s a lot of talk about inheritance and fate, about nitroglycerine “in the blood” and being infected by your “old man’s poison.” Again, not subtle, but subtle’s not the idea: Shepard’s not writing realism, but you wouldn’t really know it from the performances of Kinney’s cast.
Hardly five minutes into the play, Wesley launches into a massive, dense monologue while his mother makes bacon and toast. “I was lying there on my back,” he says, “I could smell the avocado blossoms. I could hear the coyotes. I could hear stock cars squealing down the street. I could feel myself in my bed in my room in this house in this town in this state in this country. I could feel this country close like it was part of my bones …” Geary — who approaches his whole character with a murky menace that, if it doesn’t grate, also doesn’t exhilarate — pushes through this vast, heightened aria as if it’s all run-of-the-mill breakfast conversation. The atmosphere around him hardly shifts. But Shepard is going in and out of reality, in and out of poetry, in and out of deep consciousness: The Wesley who moodily tends the farm and fixes the broken door and pisses (literally) on his sister’s 4-H project isn’t the Wesley who’s got access to this vocabulary, to these sensations and revelations. Yet one is hiding inside the other. But Kinney and his actors never really shift into a grander, stranger tone, and without marked metamorphoses in the play’s texture — shimmers in its reality, like the wavering air above asphalt on a hot day — the text can start to feel baggy and stagnant.
It can also slip into the wrong kind of absurdity, as when, one after another, both Weston and Ella fall asleep on the kitchen table and manage to stay asleep through chaos that would wake the dead. Here, when Siff’s Ella climbs atop Warshofsky’s sleeping Weston and shakes him mercilessly for what feels like minutes, the scene seems almost silly. Believability is a terrible thing to be shackled by in a play like Curse, and that’s where Kinney has trapped his ensemble. Weston’s catatonia isn’t real — or rather, it’s real in a different, deeper sense — but after its first moments, this production never really challenges or expands our understanding of reality.
Inside the narrow box of basically believable behavior, the play’s actors, while serviceable, often end up falling into stiffness or stridency. The Tates are mostly playing moods, rather than specific actions: Ella, curt and defensive; Wesley, frowning and flat; Weston, garrulous and erratic; Emma, claws out and reckless. Warshofsky’s working with one of those natural-disaster Shepard roles that should feel physically dangerous — destructive and depressing, yet weirdly electrifying when he gets going — but both the menace and the swagger are muted. DeClement’s Emma, meanwhile, seems out of place in this hovel: She reads as what she is, a modern young actress with great hair playing big and brash, but without a palpable sense of what Ella calls “squalor and ignorance.” She performs a whole scene covered in mud and somehow never actually seems dirty. It’s Esau Pritchett and Andrew Rothenberg — playing a pair of hired thugs that show up for only a few moments at the play’s end — who actually feel released, reveling in the nastiness and chaos like a couple of bloody, grinning vultures.
No one in the Tate family is headed for a happy ending, but as the hammers start to fall in the second act, it’s jarring to realize that the production has so closed us off that the horrible things that happen to its characters hardly register on the emotional Richter scale. We’re somehow able to look upon the sick, symbolic depravity that infects Wesley — or the awful fate that eventually subsumes Emma — with the same level gaze with which we watched Ella cook bacon. Our guts haven’t been invited to the party, and so, like the Tates, we stay hungry.
Curse of the Starving Class is at the Signature Theatre Company through June 2.