Sam Shepard recently referred to “Buried Child” as “the same clunky play” it always was, rewrites notwithstanding. That’s Shepard being candid. That’s Shepard being Shepard. Never mind that awkward dramaturgy and a little too much speechifying dialogue didn’t keep the play from winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama or Shepard from being declared the meatiest playwright of his generation. (For that matter, similar problems didn’t keep Eugene O’Neill from being hailed as America’s greatest dramatist of the 20th-century.)
The revival of “Buried Child” by the New Group, which opened last night in a production starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan at the Signature Theater Center, confirms Shepard’s opinion of the play. It is an ungainly thing, a seriocomic tragedy about a screwed-up rural Illinois family harboring a darker secret than the dead baby of the title. That darker secret is actually the best piece of writing on offer because it is never actually stated. Revealed instead by implication, it gains unexpected force. Not much in the rest of play holds up. Neither do the performances under Scott Elliott’s direction — Harris’s excepted — which comes as another surprise.
Rather than go too deep into the gory details, let’s just say I was disappointed that the actors surrounding Harris (who’s at center stage from beginning to end in a convincing portrayal of Dodge, the emphysemic old man of the family) somehow don’t have what it takes to put the play over despite its defects. Unfortunately, a reviewer’s obligation won’t permit me to leave it at that. So here goes:
Madigan is stiff in her role as Dodge’s wife Halie, a fastidious, hectoring, secretly wayward matron with a weakness for churchy pieties. Madigan’s tone is all surface. She’s stuffed with words, but little gets off the page. Maybe that will change with more performances. Taissa Farmiga, who plays Shelly, the interloping girlfriend of their grandson, seems miscast. ”She’s a pistol, isn’t she?” Dodge exclaims. Well, no. Her performance never pops. I don’t think that will change.
Harris anchors the production. His character work as Dodge — suffering yet comic, nipping his hidden bottle of Applejack, resigned but oddly undefeated — never overdramatizes. It doesn’t hurt that he has the best lines. The two sons — Paul Sparks as Tilden (distracted, opaquely funny) and Rich Sommer as Bradley (hulking, infantile) — are both played with more than a trace of the Pinteresque (inscrutability in Tilden’s case, menace in Bradley’s). But both are pretty much forgettable as written. Nat Wolff is affectless as the grandson Vince. And Larry Pine as Father Dewis is a cartoon.
I’ve been informed that “due to demand” the New Group has announced a second extension for “Buried Child.” Originally set to close on March 13, it has now been extended through April 3.
Postscript: Feb. 19 — The critics weigh in like the blind men describing the elephant: Newsday’s Linda Winer, The New York Times’s Ben Brantley, The Wrap’s Robert Hofler, Variety’s Marilyn Stasio, Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard, Theatermania’s Zachary Stewart.