Review of Signature Theatre's Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard

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    Date:
    May 13, 2019
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    As if we needed one more reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same, along comes the Signature Theatre revival of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at Pershing Square Signature Center. Impeccably directed by Terry Kinney, a long-time collaborator of Shepard’s, this production highlights Shepard’s prescient understanding of the road we were on 43 years ago when he wrote Curse of the Starving Class in 1976. I’m sure it wouldn’t be a comfort to him to know it.

    Curse of the Starving Class is a darkly comic work on the struggles of the Tate family living on a run-down farm in the California Central Valley. Father Weston (David Warsofsky) is an abusive alcoholic who shows up only occasionally to help out around the place, leaving an idealistic but taciturn teenaged son Wesley (Gilles Geary) to try to keep things running. Meanwhile, frustrated mom Ella (Maggie Siff) is plotting to sell the house, farm and land, lock stock and barrel to a crooked developer/lawyer named Taylor (Andrew Rothenberg) and escape the life she never bargained for. And young daughter Ella (Lizzy DeClement) who has just gotten her period for the first time, is trying desperately to escape the confines of the family that always puts her dead last on the list of priorities.

    What Shepard saw so clearly and portrays in Curse of the Starving Class is how the majority of Americans were going to be swept up into the same class of hungering individuals by corporate greed. Only a very few would be able to attain what everyone else would be left wanting – a refrigerator that fills up by magic. And that the American family, faced with empty shelves every time the refrigerator door was opened in vain, would eventually turn upon each other.

    Director Kinney has put together a dream cast for this production of Curse of the Starving ClassGilles Geary, a fairly recent Juilliard graduate, is superb as Wesley. The role (and indeed the play) is widely held to be autobiographical and Geary definitely fits the mold. Handsome in a lanky, unconventional way, he exudes the kind of brooding mystery of a Heathcliff. With equally appealing results. Maggie Siff as the disappointed and disaffected wife of an alcoholic is perfection. Her comic timing is infallible but doesn’t detract from portraying a very real, feeling human being. Both David Warshofsky’s belligerent drunk and miraculously reformed sinner were absolutely authentic and elicited appropriate responses. I wanted the drunk to disappear and the reformed sinner to make it. But it is Lizzy DeClement’s journey as Emma, from the young and hopeful 4-H striver to the desperate runaway, willing to use her feminine wiles to get out of jail free, that will break your heart. Kudos also has to go to Julian Crouch the Scenic Designer and Natasha Katz the Lighting Designer who create a farmhouse that is both real and magical at the same time.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Curse features some beautiful, signature Shepard writing, in which primal desperation becomes fervid poetry. And the play now feels prophetic in its portrait of resentful Americans, bewildered by a “zombie” economy built on “invisible money,” trembling on the brink between the middle and lower classes. There’s even a paranoid speech that anticipates drone surveillance."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Terry Kinney begins his solid revival of the 1978 Sam Shepard drama Curse of the Starving Class with a jolting coup de theatre: Julian Crouch’s set of a grubby kitchen in coastal California breaks apart before our eyes, with walls and shelves and the pots and pans that crowded them clattering loose in a tableau of radical domestic disarray that sets the stage for Shepard’s dysfunctional family drama. It’s a cool moment, and it reflects the play’s transitional place in Shepard’s oeuvre, between the absurdism of his early plays and the hyper-realism of later works like the Pulitzer winner Buried Child. But aside from the onstage appearance of an adorable, scene-stealing lamb, the rest of Kinney’s production — which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center — never quite matches the shock of its opening moments."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "It would be nice to live in a world where Sam Shepard's plays were hopelessly dated. Sadly, the writer's 1977 absurdist dark comedy Curse of the Starving Class, dealing with themes of family dysfunction, the class divide and the rapaciousness of capitalism, feels all too timely in Signature Theater's superbly acted off-Broadway revival. And if all of that sounds too painful to endure, be advised there's an adorable live lamb on stage."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter