By David Rabe; Directed by Scott Elliott
Produced by The New Group
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 12.14.14
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Ken Kaissar on 11.22.14
Raviv Ullman (on floor); Bill Pullman and Morocco Omari (on couch); Holly Hunter and Ben Schnetzer in Sticks and Bones. Photo by Monique Carboni.
BOTTOM LINE: Masterful acting and a glorious set design make this revival production a must see.
What I find so amazing about David Rabe’s brilliant play about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is the fact that it was first produced in 1971, nine years before the harrowing condition was even acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association. Though psychiatrists have been aware of PTSD for over 30 years, it seems that it has only entered mainstream consciousness in the last 15. Veteran advocacy organizations are just starting to make headway in pressuring the government to provide proper care to the thousands of soldiers returning home in this condition.
This is why it feels particularly appropriate that Rabe structures his play like a 1950s family sitcom, a period and genre notorious for turning a blind eye to honest suffering in favor of a forced sense of normalcy. At the beginning of the play, David (Ben Schnetzer), a blind and wounded soldier is brought home from the Vietnam War to his parents, appropriately named Ozzie and Harriet, played by Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter. David’s return disrupts the delusional, suburban utopia that Ozzie and Harriet work so hard to maintain. His emotional and psychological problems prove to be too great a strain for the household to bear, and Ozzie and Harriet shift their efforts from reintegrating David to facilitating his inevitable destruction for the good and welfare of the family
With Pullman and Hunter leading this amazing cast, which also includes Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald, it feels redundant to say that the acting is masterful. Of course it is. Pullman barely opened his mouth before I realized that we were in for a profound performance rarely seen in an intimate off Broadway theatre. And Hunter is absolutely heart wrenching. The seasoned veterans are supported by a cast that clearly deserve to share the stage. Raviv Ullman is perfect and hilarious as the younger brother, and Ben Schnetzer jerks tears from his first entrance and then proceeds to unnerve and terrify for the remainder of the evening.
Derek McLane’s naturalistic and detailed set design shines in this production and is integral to the clarity of the piece. The home reeks of the make-believe suburban lifestyle celebrated by family-oriented sitcoms. Even before the show began, I found myself fixating on the central staircase, which reminded me of the one used in "The Brady Bunch." McLane’s portrait of ideal domesticity makes the family’s refusal of reality even more devastating.
The play’s brilliance lies in its subtle treatment of the suburban foolishness of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ozzie and Harriet are less troubled that David committed countless atrocities then by the fact that he had sex with a Vietnamese prostitute. Pullman and Hunter struggle to accept the news of David’s sexual experiences, but their racist outrage is betrayed by their discomfort which causes Harriet to vomit before our very eyes.
The play develops slowly in the first act and requires patience. But ultimately the statement made by Rabe is timely and urgent as thousands of soldiers return home from the Middle East. Thanks to The New Group’s excellent revival, I have a new understanding of the disservice we do our veterans, not by sending them to war in the first place, but by requiring them to carry on normally and keep the horror they’ve seen to themselves so that we can continue watching "Modern Family" in peace.
(Sticks and Bones plays in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through December 14, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 7:30PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 7:30PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $77-$97 and are available at ticketcentral.com or by calling 212.279.4200.)