Monday, February 29, 2016

Buried Child: Sam Shepard and Ed Harris

Ed Harris and Paul Sparks in Buried Child, at the Pershing Square Signature Center. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

When you watch Ed Harris as Dodge, the contrary, irascible patriarch of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, in the current revival at New York City's Pershing Square Signature Center, you realize he was born to play this role – or more aptly, that the role has been waiting around for him to get old enough for it. I didn’t see Joseph Gistirak, who created the character at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1978, or Richard Hamilton, who took it over in the original off-Broadway production, but I did see James Gammon in the 1996 Broadway version, and, playing the old man as a kind of ghost sniping at everyone around him as he continues to haunt the dilapidated Illinois family farmhouse, he performed marvels with that whiskey-soaked, hollowed-out voice. It didn’t occur to me that I’d ever see a better Dodge. But Harris injects the character, who’s stationed in front of his TV set, sneaking hits of apple jack until his son Tilden (Paul Sparks) makes off with his bottle while he’s asleep, with a hilariously mean-spirited life force that makes him seem unkillable, even if you know the play and realize he fades out at the end. Harris became famous for playing a straight-arrow American hero, John Glenn in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 The Right Stuff, but he’s sometimes used his classical American looks, that rangy cowboy handsomeness, as a starting point for an in-depth portrait – perhaps most vividly as Charlie Dick, husband to Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline in the 1985 Sweet Dreams. He’s also used it ironically, as he did, also early on in his career, as the conscienceless mercenary in Under Fire. His performance in Buried Child belongs in the ironic category. You look at this ornery old codger, who doesn’t have a kind word to say about anybody – except, perhaps, his grandson Vince’s girl friend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), whose obstinacy he can appreciate (he certifies her “a pistol”) – and see the corruption of the whole frontier legacy. It’s Harris’ scheme to make that corruption richly funny.

I wish the rest of Scott Elliott’s production were in the same class as Harris, but aside from Amy Madigan (Harris’ offstage wife) as Dodge’s chatty wife Halie, whose intractable church-lady demeanor masks both a sexual robustness and a stream of prejudices, and a funny bit by Larry Pine as an Anglican priest who appears to be sleeping with her, no one else in the cast is especially good. And except for the key stage images at the ends of the three acts (performed here without intermissions), the staging is indifferent at best, clunky at worst. It’s a wasted opportunity, since this is the first New York mounting of the play since 1996. Buried Child, which won Shepard the Pulitzer Prize, is a brilliant absurdist retooling of the American family play, with nods to a number of his most famous predecessors. Long Day’s Journey into Night, obviously: you can’t take on this genre without acknowledging O’Neill. But Shepard makes many other stops along the journey. The buried child of the title calls up the invented dead son in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Zoned-out Tilden (Paul Sparks) is a variation on Lennie in Of Mice and Men, an idea that Shepard underlines in the scene where he asks Shelley to let him touch her rabbit-fur coat. Vince, who has been away from his family for six years and comes home to find no one knows him, is a prodigal son like Biff in Death of a Salesman, though that character, along with Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Ben Gordon in Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost, is one of American drama’s classic fallen athletes, an archetype that Shepard resurrects in the form of Dodge and Halie’s dead son Ansel, to whom she plans to erect a statue. (The third son, Bradley, played here by Rich Sommer, is a one-legged, impotent psychopath; in Sinise’s revival, which layered Hollywood images on top of theatrical ones, he was a horror-movie figure.)

If you were lucky enough to see the 1996 production, then except for what Harris contributes you probably didn’t need another great Buried Child anyway. Still, I was puzzled by the rhythmless quality of so much of the current one, especially when the young people are on the stage. Taissa Farmiga’s line readings are simply dreadful; she comes across as a rank amateur. I liked Nat Woolf as an unmoored teen in the 2014 movie Palo Alto, but he doesn’t bring an ounce of poetry to this performance, even though Vince is given the play’s most famous speech, a kind of reverie about family legacy in the third act. (Woolf reads it as if it were a newspaper article.) The show isn’t painful to watch, just uninteresting – except for Ed Harris, who makes it necessary viewing for any New York theatregoer who cares passionately about the art of acting.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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