Curse of the Starving Class

By Sam Shepard; Directed by Terry Kinney

Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 6.2.19
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street

by Shoshana Roberts on 5.13.19

Curse of the Starving ClassMaggie Siff and Gilles Geary in Curse of the Starving Class. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 A dysfunctional family living in squalor attempts to sell their home, dreaming of where the money would allow them to go; working on a beautiful set, the cast does justice to Sam Shepard's fascinating world.

Playwright Sam Shepard writes plays featuring the most dysfunctional families imaginable. His writing isn’t necessarily asking us to sympathize with the characters, or to ridicule them, but rather to understand their version of the world. This production of Curse of the Starving Class does honor to Shepard. With a slight end-of-the-world, Mad Max feel, director Terry Kinney’s production met my high expectations of the quality work Signature Theatre is known for, paired with my long time fascination with Shepard.

The Tate family is mom Ella (Maggie Siff), dad Weston (David Warshofsky), son Wesley (Gilles Geary), and daughter Emma (Lizzy DeClement). Whether or not they admit it, they do seem to be a part of the "starving class." Their home is filthy and rotting and their fridge is consistently empty. However, each of them has dreams of the future and hopes of getting away from the life they’re currently living. Ella plans for Europe, while Emma speaks of running away to Mexico. With no money, their plans are just wishful thinking. But both Ella and Weston are attempting to sell their house and property. Are they being tricked by the buyers though? This wouldn’t be the first time, as they have a worthless lot in the middle of the desert that Weston was conned into purchasing.

The Tates do have some semi-normal dynamics, but they are taken to the extreme. Brothers have been known to mess with their little sisters, but rather than stopping at verbal taunts, Wesley puts the posters Emma has worked hard to make on the kitchen floor and pees on them. Then Ella simply covers the pee with a cloth. Many families from all walks of life also include alcoholics, but they don't all act like Weston, breaking down the door and sleeping in the filthy laundry he piles onto the kitchen table. Perhaps they can turn their lives around though: After taking a hot bath, then a cold one, and finally walking around the house and yard naked, Weston seems to have turned over a new leaf. But a fresh outlook doesn’t mean that all your past debts and mistakes are forgiven and forgotten.

The actors are key to bringing Shepard's text to life and this cast certainly does their job. Maggie Siff displays fantastic energy, as if she’s constantly trudging up a hill, but she’s so strong you hope she'll make it all the way. Siff navigates between the weary and the invigorated sides of Ella at the drop of a hat. Watching her interact with the fridge (basically another character, as everyone speaks to it on a regular basis), prancing to and fro, opening it, staring at it, she is a delight to watch. Lizzy DeClement portrays daughter Emma with a similar vim and vigor, pleading with the fridge, climbing over the table, and pouring herself into this whirling dervish of a girl. David Warshofsky undergoes a demanding transformation as Weston, beginning drunk and disheveled, and progressing into a clean-cut father cooking breakfast for his son. Gilles Geary's Wesley is perhaps the most intense member of the family. Geary is called upon to build a door and carry a live sheep on and off stage several times (once stark naked), yet he fully inhabits the character.

The work done by scenic designer Julian Crouch is also noteworthy. Prior to the dimming of the house lights, we see a dilapidated kitchen, weathered and cluttered; once the show begins, there is a beautiful reveal, as the walls break away with sections elevated above the stage for the remainder of the show. Pots, pans, utensils and all of the other items we originally saw scrunched together topple down off the shelves, hanging from strings. You realize the family is living in the middle of this figurative, yet now semi-literal tornado.

Crouch’s work illuminates Kinney's dark vision. We can see action in the gaps between the walls and observe characters as they use the space outside of the house. The walls and set dressings are secured, but the dangling items still create a precarious feeling, as if things could fall into the deep abyss beyond at any moment. This Curse of the Starving Class is a job well done by all involved. 

(Curse of the Starving Class plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through June 2, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $35 and are available at or by calling 212-244-7529.)

Curse of the Starving Class is by Sam Shepard. Directed by Terry Kinney. Scenic Design by Julian Crouch. Costume Design by Sarah J. Holden. Lighting Design by Natasha Katz. Sound Design and Original Music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Movement Director is Peter Pucci. Stage Manager is Robert Bennett.

The cast is Lizzy DeClement, Flora Diaz, Gilles Geary, Esau Pritchett, Andrew Rothenberg, Maggie Siff, and David Warshofsky.