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David Rabe used to be big but is now mostly forgotten save by the New Group, which revived his “Hurlyburly” in 2005 and is now giving us “Sticks and Bones,” the first installment in his quartet of plays about the Vietnam War, in which he served. You probably won’t recognize the title unless you have near-total recall, but the Public Theater produced “Sticks and Bones” off Broadway in 1971, then moved it uptown for a production that won its author a Tony, after which it was turned by CBS into a TV movie that half the network’s affiliates refused to air.
That’s quite a tale. On the other hand, “Sticks and Bones” hasn’t been seen in New York since it closed in 1972, nor have any major regional productions come to my attention. You’d expect it, then, to be a cultural artifact, as is Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season,” another anti-establishment play that rang the box-office bell but flopped when it came back to Broadway four decades later. Sure enough, it’s a leaden satire about Dave (Ben Schnetzer), a wounded soldier from a sitcom family so squeaky-clean that his father (Bill Pullman), mother (Holly Hunter) and kid brother (Raviv Ullman) are actually named Ozzie, Harriet and Rick. Blinded and broken in Vietnam, he comes home to tell them the truth about the war and finds that they just won’t listen.
Merely to describe “Sticks and Bones” is to wince at its banality. The satirical frame that drives the play was already trite in 1971. Today it’s a dead metaphor…
The AIDS plays of the ‘80s and ‘90s are back. First came Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” and now it’s Second Stage’s revival of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” which was originally seen Off Broadway in 1991, at the height of the epidemic. To revisit them is an undeniably interesting experience, but rarely a convincing one. In “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” for instance, Mr. McNally flogs away at four straight suburbanites (Michael Chernus, Tracee Chimo, America Ferrera and Austin Lysy) who are spending the Fourth of July in the Fire Island summer home of a relative who recently died of AIDS. Not only are they homophobic, so much so that they won’t swim in his pool for fear of catching the dread disease, but they’re all leading lives of quiet frustration, on top of which they envy the more abundant sex lives of the gay men by whom they are surrounded. (One of the four actually kills a snake and brandishes it triumphantly, which deserves some sort of prize for neon-sign symbolism.) And yes, they undergo a group epiphany as they watch their neighbors’ fireworks and learn that Homosexuals Are Human, Too.
Whatever else this is, it isn’t art, and it doesn’t help that Mr. McNally portrays his straw men so implausibly that you wonder whether he’s ever met any straight suburbanites….
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To read my review of Sticks and Bones, go here.
To read my review of Lips Together, Teeth Apart, go here.