Excavating the American Dream: The New Group’s ‘Buried Child’
It is not easy to watch The New Group’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Buried Child. Originally produced in San Francisco, then New York City, in 1978, the play was later revived in 1996 on Broadway, earning accolades (the production was a transfer from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.) Now, a decade later, director Scott Elliott helms this complex work that tackles the disintegration of an American family during the agricultural and economic wasteland of the 1970s.
Ed Harris (four-time Academy Award nominee) and Amy Madigan (The Jacksonian, A Streetcar Named Desire) lead the cast in Shepard’s postmodern play that teeters on realism while weaving in surrealistic layerings of symbolism and purposefully repetitive passages of text. As the withering patriarch Dodge, Harris nails this delicate balance, as does Madigan, as his churchgoing wife, Halie, who functions in a world of the past while casting aside the horrific and incestuous happenings that undermine their children.
The sons, Tilden (Paul Sparks) and Bradley (Rich Sommer), reside at the family farmhouse, in a sort of hazy nonexistence. It’s only when Tilden’s son, Vince (Nat Wolff) shows up with his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga) that the family quilt begins to quickly unravel. Without delivering any spoilers, let’s just say that the existing family unit is none too eager to welcome Vince back to the farm. And while he dashes off to buy booze for Dodge, his girlfriend’s inquisitive nature helps usher some skeletons out of the closet. Halie returns to the house with Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to find havoc in the household, and ultimately a tragic truth, deeply buried (both literally and figuratively), finally comes to light.
While Harris and Madigan are deft at navigating Shepard’s nuanced style, Wolff and Farmiga struggle to find their footing. Emotions are distilled to screaming and flippant rebuttals, leaving these integral characters as mere cut-outs against an in-depth backdrop.
This play won’t be everyone’s theatrical cup of tea. It’s uncomfortable subject matter and Shepard’s unforgiving delivery of it makes for a squeamish 90 minutes. But if you can take it, there’s something to unearth in Buried Child.
Here’s what other critics are saying:
“Directed by Scott Elliott and anchored by a deeply textured yet effortless performance by Ed Harris, the revival doesn’t strain for shock, emphasizing ordinary rather than grotesque aspects of its characters’ lives. . . 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 – Time Out New York
“Some of its shock value has worn off, but “Buried Child” (which has not been seen in New York in two decades) remains a gritty, mysterious, often engrossing portrait of domestic life gone to hell, as demonstrated by Scott Elliott’s well-acted Off-Broadway revival on behalf of the New Group.” Matt Windman – amNew York
“Harris’ unforced and potent performance in the New Group’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning 1978 drama makes this engaging but unevenly acted production worthwhile. . . Buried Child isn’t exactly subtle but it still grabs and sends shivers.” Joe Dziemianowicz – Daily News
Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through April 3
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.