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BWW Review: Sam Shepard's BURIED CHILD; American Gothic Gets A Little Too Goth


By 1977, Sam Shepard was firmly established in the elite crew of New York's downtown playwrights, having been awarded six Obies in eleven years.

Ed Harris and Paul Sparks (Photo: Monique Carboni)

His 1978 entry, Buried Child, earned him number seven when it transferred to the Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) after a premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, and after the darkly absurdist drama nabbed him a Pulitzer Prize, Shepard was no longer a niche commodity.

BURIED CHILD's depiction of American Gothic gone a little too goth may have understandably lost most of its shock value since the time when it reflected the country's growing disillusionment with the initial optimism of Jimmy Carter's presidency. With its social commentary more of museum quality in 2016, audiences today may grow impatient with the play's ambiguous plotting.

But there's something to be said for a fine museum display, and director Scott Elliott's solid production for The New Group is good for some sick laughs and some mildly rebellious symbolism.

As the audience enters, Ed Harris' weather-beaten alcoholic patriarch, Dodge, is already comfortably parked on the couch of designer Derek McLane's crumbling farmhouse. From off-stage, the piercing voice of his wife Halie (Amy Madigan) shrieks out nitpicky barbs that Dodge remains sullenly oblivious to.

You can imagine this couple to have been a strong, hearty working man and his lovely and loving spouse before devolving with a long streak of failures. The play is essentially a series of details revealed to the audience that point out how absurdly low their lives have stooped.

Their mentally unstable eldest son, Tilden (Paul Sparks), was involved with a matter of incest and spends much of his time digging up vegetables and bringing them into the house. Another son, Bradley (Rich Sommer) has been aggressive and violent since losing his leg in a chainsaw accident.

Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Rich Sommer, Amy Madigan and
Larry Pine (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Naturally, this is a family with secrets, but one of them isn't that Halie has been carrying on an affair with Father Dewis (Larry Pine).

Tilden's estranged 22-year-old son Vince (Nat Wolff) shows up unexpectedly with his nice, normal girlfriend, Shelly (Taissa Farmiga). Nobody recognizes Vince, but Dodge slips him some money to buy him alcohol. Shelly isn't thrilled with the idea of being left alone with these unfamiliar and unpredictable men, especially when Vince, and his car, don't return in a reasonable amount of time.

The fine cast is led by Harris' grizzled Dodge, the realistic anchor symbolizing a defeated culture that needs to pass on any hope of a legacy to a younger and stronger successor. In an election year where a leading candidate is promising to make America great again, you have to wonder is this is the way some are seeing the current state of the union.

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From This Author Michael Dale