Stephen Rea in Kicking a Dead Horse
(© Joan Marcus)
Stephen Rea in Kicking a Dead Horse
(© Joan Marcus)
Sam Shepard's newest play Kicking a Dead Horse, now getting its American premiere at the Public Theater, springs directly out of his top drawer, but that vaunted status may not be apparent from the current production, starring the Irish actor Stephen Rea as an East Coast art dealer named Hobart Struther.

The 80-minute virtual solo slow -- which debuted to great acclaim at Dublin's Abbey Theatre last year with Rea in the lead -- is about death and, more than that, about the death of the American Wild West myth. It's a macabre piece, to be sure, but it's indisputably intended as black comedy and should come off as hilarious. Ultimately, Shepard, who has directed the work, simply may not have found ways in which to get the grizzled and world-weary Rea to tickle ribs enough for American tastes.

Shepard has had the wonderful idea to vivify the old expression about kicking a dead horse -- aka trying to make things work beyond their reasonable time -- by having Struther go on a late-in-life adventure to the desolate western flatlands, only to have the horse he's riding turn up its hooves. When first seen, Struther is climbing out of the grave he's dug for his deceased horse. It's as if he's climbing out of his own grave, which is part of Shepard's dour point about one man's rage against his demise and, by extrapolation, a country's rage against its own heretofore unacknowledged decline. Yet, he's too cool to think he can get away with being unmitigatedly stern-faced as he issues his dire observations about America and the search for national authenticity that has been so undermined in today's political climate.

So, grim as the message may be, Shepard tries to get Struther's struggle with that rigor-mortised beast to register as broadly amusing. Often haranguing his predicament, Struther attacks himself and, as the play's title promises, attacks the horse repeatedly as well. And every time he gives the heavy brown corpse the boot -- even once in the butt -- sound designer Dan Moses Schreier provides a resounding boooooiiiiiiing. (The veteran playwright is also clearly indebted to Samuel Beckett, who isn't so terminally despairing that he never sees the humor in dire situations.)

By the way, there is another character, Young Woman (Elissa Piszel), who wafts spirit-like out of the grave for a short stay in a gold-hued slip and a cowboy hat that Struther has discarded. She's a symbol of something to do with the Old West, but your guess is as good as mine -- or Shepard's -- as to exactly what she's meant to represent.

Still, the brilliance of Kicking A Dead Horse is in the infinite reverberations Shepard extracts from his simple metaphor. But maybe successfully bringing such a simple metaphor to the stage is more complicated than he has yet figured out.