Sam Shepard doesn't do false advertising.
For a play with so many mythic and furtive qualities, Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (now receiving a revival from the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center) gives us a title that is 100 percent literal: This is a play about a dead baby (among other things). That fact alone might repel a more squeamish audience, but once you're in, the allure of Shepard's frontier dreamscape (already beautifully rendered this season in the Broadway revival of Fool for Love) proves difficult to resist. This is a fascinating production that will haunt you for days.
The action takes place in the jaundiced living room of an old Illinois farm house. A torrential rainstorm beats against the window panes. Dodge (Ed Harris) is the king of this castle. Firmly planted in front of the TV with a bottle of whiskey, he is prepared to slowly slide into oblivion. He ignores the upstairs monologue of his wife, Halie (Harris' actual spouse, Amy Madigan), as she prepares for a lunch date with Father Dewis (Larry Pine). Their eldest son, Tilden (a disturbed and deliberate Paul Sparks), shucks corn onto the floor, even though his parents insist that they haven't planted corn since 1935. When Tilden's son, Vince (Nat Wolff), returns home after a six-year absence, no one seems to know who he is. "It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or something," observes Vince's Angelino girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), as she peers around the time capsule of a house. By the time creepy Uncle Bradley (Rich Sommer) is sticking his fingers down her throat, however, she has a far different impression.
Noting the subtle weirdness of Shepard's plays, critic Jack Richardson wrote, "He has found a way of maintaining a tension between the banal and the strange that gives his plays the quality of lucid dreams." Much of Buried Child feels like a garden variety living room drama, but ever-emerging strange elements (a wooden leg, miracle vegetables, an abortive family reunion) suggest a world that operates by a different logic than our own. Sure, this is a clan with plenty of secrets, but the mysteries of Buried Child go far beyond decades-old tragedies and fraught relationships.
Director Scott Elliott is especially skilled at preserving a dreamlike tone, endowing the visual elements with a vibrancy that is a shade too vivid to be real. Scenic designer Derek McLane wallpapers the room in a hideous pink and tan print that lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski bathes in an incandescent glow. Against this backdrop, some of Susan Hilferty's costumes pop explosively (in the first act, Halie is head-to-toe in a black skirt suit, as if in mourning) while others fade into the set (Dodge's rumpled shirt and ball cap make it seem as though he is decomposing right in front of our eyes). The performers operate in this water-color world as if everything is completely normal.
Since she is an outsider exploring this house of horrors for the first time, some directors have viewed Shelly as our way in. Thankfully, Elliott does not take this tack: Why explain away the unexplainable? Farmiga blocks the road to accessibility as she races through her lines, hop-scotching over key syllables. Clad in a cheap rabbit fur coat, she punctuates her rushed sentences with an abrupt, "Hmmmm?" She feels more like a Martian posing as a fast-talking hipster chick than a real human being.
The other characters aren't any more reassuring. Wolff's Vince oscillates between nice boy and psycho. Madigan stabs us with her harsh Midwestern vowels (neither of the female characters comes off as more than a caricature, but Shepard never set out to win any awards for feminist playwriting). Sommer's Bradley is a brute who devolves quickly into a man-boy. With so little stable ground in this nightmarish landscape, Shepard and Elliott cruelly force us to find security in the embrace of a violent patriarch (as so many people around the world do).
Ironically, Dodge comes off as the most authentically human of the bunch. Harris plays him with a fine mixture of grit and pharmaceutical loopiness. Sure, he's a jerk, but his summary dismissal of Shelly ("dumb as dirt") conjures cherished memories of Thanksgiving in the Midwest. One can't help but laugh. It turns out that Shelly's first impression wasn't entirely off: Those Norman Rockwell paintings look nice, but we could never hear what those all-American families were saying to each other. After seeing Buried Child, you might have a better idea.