Buried Child

  • Our critic's rating:
    February 1, 2016
    Review by:
    Stan Friedman

    The 1978, Pulitzer Prize winning play Buried Child is Sam Shepard’s best work, a brutal collision between 70’s recession era defeat and 1960’s absurdism. It’s a tale about ancestry and inheritance in which Shepard echoes his own literary forefathers, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. The New Group does Shepard proud with this deep, dark revival, led by Ed Harris who turns in a masterful and rugged performance, even while his character is unable to stand up under his own power.

    Harris plays Dodge, the failed and withering patriarch of a family that is…well…let’s just say that dysfunctional would be too kind a word. Dodge’s wife, Halie (Amy Madigan), is only a disembodied voice when we first meet her, babbling on endlessly from an unseen upstairs bedroom, while Dodge tolerates her with cynicism, grunts and swigs of rot gut. Their grown-up offspring include Bradley (Rich Sommer), an inept task master who cut off his own leg with a chainsaw, and Tilden (Paul Sparks), a mentally unbalanced wanderer with a penchant for finding trouble and vegetables. There is a third, dearly departed, son whom Halie immortalizes and mythologizes (Who can blame her?). And there is, of course, the title character, the dirty little secret out in the back yard that caused all this fuss. Actually, the title operates on a few different levels. Most of the adults we meet here are buried children in their own way. Dodge wants nothing more than his blankie and his bottle. Tilden is awkward and scared, while Bradley is a classic bully. As a heavy rain pours down behind scenic designer Derek McLane’s fine, mud brown living room, Halie runs off for a date with the local priest, leaving the problem kids to their own devices, though not before delivering a bit of meta-humor. Discovering that Tilden has somehow shown up with an armload of corn, she gives voice to just what the audience is wondering, “What’s is the meaning of this corn, Tilden!”

    Harris, on stage the entire time, though sometimes passed out under his blanket, employs a growling voice full of gravelly pathos. “I’m descended from a long line of corpses and there’s not a living soul behind me.” he snarls, and indeed we witness him sink away to nothing, having lost all connection with his wife, his health, and the once fertile farmland around his home. Sparks goes the opposite route, making Tilden ever creepier with his polite, soft-spoken manner, not afraid to resort to the occasional faint whisper, with the audience clinging to his every weird word.

    There are three other characters in the play, interlopers who get more than they bargain for, and they make for an interesting study in casting. Vince (Nat Wolff) is Tilden’s son and he shows up with his girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), for a surprise visit. They seem to be a normal, happy couple, until setting foot in this haunted house that, before you know it, transforms them into messed up schemers. Shelly is the only one brave enough to sit in Halie’s chair, though she has to suffer through Bradley physically violating her before finding the courage. Vince abandons her there, but returns in time to make Dodge’s blanket his own. He wears it over his shoulders like the newly appointed king he now is. Neither performer has logged much previous stage time, but the choice to use inexperienced actors here is a gamble that pays off, with their nervous, awkward energy creating just the right dramatic tension.

    This is in contrast to Father Dewis (Larry Pine), Halie’s holy boy toy. Pine is a veteran character actor and his stately and instantly recognizable presence amplifies the gag that Lewis is there to present, that given a family with deep emotional problems, a dash for the front door is the clergy’s best and only response. The one man calling himself father is the most helpless of them all.

    Rhythm can be everything in a play that twists and warps as much as this one. Happily, director Scott Elliott not only nails the pacing, he flaunts it. With an assist from sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom, a leaking ceiling sends a slow steady drip drip drip into a metal bucket. It serves as a metronome, pacing out Dodge’s sad final hours amid the chaos of family.

    (Stan Friedman)

    "Scott Elliott’s uneven revival may be performed in a lower key than the usual interpretations of this American gothic masterwork. But Mr. Elliott and his starry cast give us a thoughtful, lucid presentation that’s absorbing enough to remind us of why it’s always worth revisiting Mr. Shepard’s haunted mansion."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "'Buried Child' isn’t exactly subtle but it still grabs and sends shivers."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "I still want to see a bolder, more apocalyptic revival of this big (yet small) play, with a uniformly strong cast, knockout visuals and a directorial vision that finds more exciting ways to unlock the horror and madness at its core. Still, while this may not be the finest Buried Child you’ll see, the play only comes around every 20 years, and it’s worth a homecoming."
    David Cote for Time Out New York

    "Scott Elliott applies discipline in directing a wild ride of a harrowing revival for The New Group."
    Jennifer Farrar for Associated Press

    "Shepard's excessive symbolism feels far too obvious in this tepid production."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "There’s a bona fide Sam Shepard actor in director Scott Elliott’s uneven revival of 'Buried Child' (a play that won the Pulitzer in 1979) for the New Group. It’s Ed Harris, who is mesmerizing as Dodge — one of those patriarchal figures, central to the work of this playwright, whose past sins are visited on his sons and on the American wasteland where they live."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out New York - Hollywood Reporter - Variety