On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
To get students’ creative juices flowing, writing teachers like to make them build a story around some basic situation or obstacle. “There’s a secret that everyone knows but is not allowed to discuss,” for instance – I have not-so-fond memories of some of my poor attempts to create a suspenseful story with that basis. Watching Buried Child, currently being produced by the White Horse Theater Company, I couldn’t help but muse that maybe Sam Shepard was once just a regular writer starting out, not yet the lauded “greatest American playwright of his generation,” and that he took creative writing classes and did this exercise, only unlike me he actually made something good out of it. 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning good, in fact. WHTC’s production doesn’t hit all the right notes in this production, so the dark drama drags and puzzles more than it should, but there are several noteworthy acting jobs and numerous sequences that are likely to send a bit of a chill down your spine.
It starts out innocuously enough, with a long, depressingly true-to-Midwest-life (at least in my experience) exchange of sorts between Halie (Karen Gibson) and Dodge (Bill Rowley), an elderly Illinois couple who live in a shabby farmhouse whose interior is nicely recreated by Caroline Abella. Actually, only Dodge is visible onstage; Halie hollers down at him from her hidden upstairs bedroom for close to twenty minutes as he alternately mutters, yells back up at her, and takes swigs from the bottle of whiskey he hides under the sofa cushion. In other hands, this could come off as boring and/or annoying, but Shepard writes the scene so that even though all you’re doing is watching Dodge watch TV and get steamed about Halie’s inane natterings, you very quickly feel as though you know the characters quite well. Of course, this is also due in no small part to the actors, Rowley especially, who have a wonderfully genuine air about them. But with the entrance of their grown son Tilden (Rod Sweitzer), the relative normality of this opening with Halie and Dodge bickering ill-temperedly, even with the unconventional touch of one of the actors being offstage, becomes a thing of the past, as weird, unexpected turns of events crowd in. Tilden – who got into some unspecified trouble years ago (the source of the central secret) and is now incapable of taking care of himself – brings in armfuls of vegetables from a garden that hasn’t been planted in decades; a young man arrives with his girlfriend for a visit, claiming to be Tilden’s son except no one will admit to recognizing him; Halie, having gone out, returns with the minister, both of them flirting like schoolkids even as everything falls apart around them. It’s a study in American dysfunction.
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It can be hard to portray dysfunction without coming off dysfunctional and disjointed yourself, though, and this version of Buried Child doesn’t entirely put the pieces together. The characters are all on different wavelengths, sure, but the audience has to be able to sense some kind of overall connectedness or it just becomes a tangle of absurd juxtapositions that don’t add up to anything more. This is a tall order, to be sure, and that’s why Shepard is tough to get right. White Horse and its director, Cyndy Marion, have done three Shepard plays in the past few years and earned good notices for them (I didn’t make it to any so can’t compare) but Buried Child seems overly hesitant and halting, with some unfortunate off cues. For one, Tilden and his disturbing past are one of the main pivots of the play, but Sweitzer portrays him with a half-smile and too-slow, vacant speech that gives none of the necessary insight into the character. The reputed grandson, Vince, and his girlfriend Shelly, who have just come from New York, are meant to be total outsiders, and Chris Stetson and Ginger Kroll definitely seem that, and more – at times it doesn’t even feel like they’re in the same play as the others, and this is jarring. Shepard’s works are almost uniformly jarring and discomfiting, of course, but again, there’s that fine line between being able to show that and make the audience feel viscerally uneasy, and just totally baffling us, not providing the intertextual hints one needs in order to puzzle things out, even on a simple emotional level, to feel closeness to the characters and their concerns.
Still, despite my criticisms, a variety of intense moments in the play shine brightly, the ones already mentioned as well as David Look’s perfectly menacing turn as Bradley (Dodge and Halie’s second son) and the segment where he and his parents, previously all at odds, unite against Shelly, the interloper who presumes to judge them. The production as a whole, though, never quite gels, sprawling on until and past the surprising moment when Dodge just spells out the secret – a revelation that doesn’t actually reveal much. For the record, this was the first time I’d seen Buried Child performed, so maybe the earlier versions have offered similar frustrations – Pulitzer Prize or not, it might just be the play. But I think it was more that too many seams were showing in Shepard’s already tenuously woven story, and that couldn’t help but remind of those frustrating creative writing classes I started out talking about. This Buried Child is, even so, a lot better than most stuff that comes out of those, but regrettably it doesn’t reach the suspenseful heights of eerie drama that Shepard is so renowned for.
Buried Child is at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 W. 54th St., 4th floor, through Feb. 12. Performances are Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm. Tickets at Smarttix.