Holly Hunter, Ben Schnetzer, and Raviv Ullman in Sticks and Bones. via
I began to believe that I no longer wished to be a theater critic about halfway through David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, revived for reasons mysterious by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center. When most of the audience actually returned from the intermission—masochistically eager to subject themselves to another ninety minutes of this relentlessly pretentious twaddle rather than do the rational thing and seek out cocktails or one of those Men in Black memory-eraser devices—I resolved to leave New York entirely. When they stood and cheered manically at the event’s conclusion—not because it had concluded, but because they had deceived themselves into believing that they had seen a play—I made a mental note to begin exploring careers in hermitage.
I have so often found myself tempted to write that such-and-such a production is the worst thing I have ever seen on a stage that I began to fear I was making the phrase into a personal cliché. I am therefore relieved to write that Sticks and Bones is not the worst thing I have seen purporting to be a work of drama: That distinction still belongs to the Public Theater’s production of something alleging to be William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (The New Criterion, October 2014) that began with a supine paean to New York City’s new Sandinista mayor, Bill de Blasio, and quickly degenerated—it is possible to go downhill from there!—into a hallucinatory pageant of banality featuring a large selection of (I am not making this up) Muppets, along with a U.S. senator who wandered onto the stage to deliver a self-serving political monologue. Sticks and Bones is a god-awful piece of work, but it is a few Cookie Monsters and one Chuck Schumer shy of Oskar Eustis’s grotesque and total abandonment of artistic standards and self-respect.
Sticks and Bones is a 1971 play about the horrors of the Vietnam war, a vicious and fruitless conflict of which Mr. Rabe is himself a veteran. David, played with a sort of sub-Naked Lunch psychedelic funk by a nearly incompetent Ben Schnetzer, has returned home to his family—Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick, ha-ha!—physically and spiritually maimed by the war. He is full of poison, haunted by memories of a Vietnamese lover, Zung (Nadia Gan, sleepwalking around the stage with a series of blank expressions suggesting that her direction consisted of something like “Give me inscrutable Oriental!”), and left blind by his injuries. He is to be our Tiresias, physically blind while his eyes have been metaphysically opened to the quiet horror of his outdated sitcom family, the hollowness of their Catholic faith (made corporeal in the person of Father Donald, played by Richard Chamberlain, who knows something about playing conflicted men of the cloth, having played Father Ralph de Bricassart in the 1980s miniseries The Thorn Birds), and the oppression of the respectable suburban home to which he has returned. Like the Tiresias of The Waste-Land, he is “blind, throbbing between two lives,” one home in suburbia, one languishing back in Vietnam.
David’s parents, Ozzie and Harriet (Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter) exist to do two things: The first is to spew an endless stream of racial and sexual bile at David and implicitly at Zung, who is frequently on stage but invisible to everyone save the blind man, desperately trying to explain away David’s new, evangelical nihilism as the result of his having been seduced by a woman they repeatedly describe as a “filthy” “yellow” “whore.” Their secondary function is to show that they can be every bit as miserable as David, even without having endured the trauma of war.
Or, in the case of Ozzie, because he never endured the trauma of war. Having missed out on the big one himself, Ozzie goes on and on about his contribution to the war effort (industrial rather than military) and about his various scraps and fistfights, which are recounted in a tremulous voice as the flimsiest evidence of his virility. Mr. Pullman is a fine actor, but there is almost nothing that could be done with Mr. Rabe’s literature. Richard Burbage could not make this mess coherent, and he certainly deserves reviving more than this witless wreck of a play does. Ozzie is in fact the largest presence in the play, and his lines—his endless river of lines—largely take the form of a particularly fetid and perfervid stream of consciousness, an endless personal disquisition on the life he has wasted, on violence he performs on his family in his fantasies, on the deprivations of his hobo youth during the Depression, the sterility of his social milieu. So comprehensive is his catalogue of woe and complaint that I half expected him to mention that in 1956 he ordered a chicken-salad sandwich on rye but was served a chicken-salad sandwich on pumpernickel—an episode to which Mr. Rabe would no doubt have dedicated 40 or 50 disjointed lines. Mr. Pullman would no doubt have done his best—which is, after all, pretty good—to hammer those into some sort of shape, but precedent suggests that he would have failed.
This sort of thing might—might—have smelled relatively fresh in 1971, though I doubt it: A half a century after the publication of Ulysses, anybody with a passing interest in literature should have recognized Mr. Rabe’s attempts at expressing through fractured incantation such malarial discomfort of the soul as the derivative, stale, three-day-old glazed donut that it is. The occasions upon which I find myself thinking “William S. Borroughs did this sort of thing a hell of a lot better” are so rare as to be practically unique, and so that thought forms the sole novel sensation produced by Sticks and Bones.
Despite Harriet’s presence on the page, Holly Hunter is an absence on the stage. I kept imagining Laurie Metcalf in the role; if she could stop herself from rolling her eyes at what comes out of her mouth, she might have made something of it, terrifying as her portrayal of a woman suffering the early stages of early-onset senility was in The Other Place (The New Criterion, May 2013). But dementia is one thing, demented another.
Mr. Chamberlain is sure and controlled in the role of the rotten priest, who is one part P. T. Barnum and one part Arthur Dimmesdale. But the only truly lively performance in the play is that of Raviv Ullman in the role of Rick, an evil-twin version of Ricky Nelson whose clumsy guitar strumming and good-time demeanor gradually rot away, revealing a Mephistophelean seducer who cheerily talks David into slitting his wrists while his relieved family looks on. Mr. Ullman’s quietly manic performance contains the only real humor in what is supposed to be, after all, a black comedy, but which is in the main simply a mess of gray.
At the other end of town, and the other end of the spectrum, we have Keith Josef Adkins’s excellent Pitbulls, directed by Leah C. Gardiner for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The venue in question was not merely Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway—it was upstairs from a church rectory hosting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a fitting counterpoint to this work about wine, struggle, and entrapment.
Pitbulls is set in a backwoods trailer park in the Ohio River valley, a place where the names “Cincinnati” and “Wheeling” stand for cosmopolitan sophistication, where we find “trailer trash in its natural habitat,” as one character puts it, outside a town so desperate for economic development that it is hoping to become to pitbull fighting what Orlando is to theme parks. At the center of the story is the excellent Yvette Ganier as Mary, a witchy backwoodswoman who makes a living peddling homemade wine spiked with her own blood, who is the protector and tormentor of her son and only family, Dipper (Maurice Williams), a socially stunted man-child who longs for contact of practically any sort with the outside world. Mary is fiercely independent and declares that independence by having her son set fire to American flags being flown in honor of Independence Day. She is menaced by the condescending local sheriff, Virgil (Billy Eugene Jones, also excellent), whose interest in her is as much erotic as it is legal. His competition is the minister Wayne (Nathan Hinton), who is torn between his sexual fixation on Mary and his apparently sincere, if defective, commitment to his wife, Rhonda, played by Donna Duplantier, the only real disappointment in the production. Ms. Duplantier is competent enough in the role, but her character is grievously miswritten, another victim of the writerly temptation to make the wronged spouse an unsympathetic figure of fun, thereby taking some of the sting out of adultery. That’s a minor dramatic sin at the best of times, but in the pitiless world of Pitbull, what’s needed is more sting, not less.
The titular canines never make an appearance—save for the severed head of one, a MacGuffin that moves the plot forward as Dipper comes under suspicion for the death of the prize fighting dog and consequently the earlier killing of another pitbull. But the pitbulls are hauntingly present throughout the play, the sounds of their barking, growling, and battling in the not-too-distant distance serving as the play’s score. It is an eminently creepy effect, one that redounds to the credit of Ms. Gardiner and the sound designer Bart Fasbender.
There are many mysteries in the story: the question of Dipper’s father, the question of Dipper’s possible role in one or more canicides, the origins of Mary’s estrangement from society, the nature of Virgil’s agenda. Those mysteries are resolved in a casual, almost desultory fashion, but they are almost beside the point. The meat of the play is Mr. Adkins’s remarkable text, a miniature epic of blood-steeped hilljack poetry elevating the idiosyncratic speech of black Appalachia into half-Byronic, half-reportorial meditation on a world of brutal dog fights and bad sex. When one of the characters recalls the birth of a pitbull litter and the sight of the afterbirth baking in the sun “right under the American flag,” it is not subtle, but it is pungent.
The major physical presence on the stage is the large trailer house in which Mary and Dipper dwell, but the physical world is built out by an accumulation of smaller items with totemic value. When Wayne comes round for a liaison with Mary, she demands tribute, which he provides in the form of wine glasses ordered from Cincinnati and West Virginia. Virgil berates Mary for having a washing machine outdoors, a sure sign of trailer trash, and the bedraggled-looking machine is visually perfect. When Mary’s home is turned upside-down by vigilantes, the sad sprawl of her meager possessions simultaneously communicates privation and chaos. The scenic designer Andrew Boyce has created an evocative physical world.
Like Sticks and Bones, Pitbulls contains a number of lengthy, fever-dream riffs, but they never feel similarly stale and contrived. The sense of desperation in the play is not manufactured, but discovered. As is the case in similarly artful works, the characters, places, and situations in Pitbulls do not feel so much created as revealed—the skill necessary to craft an illusion of that quality is admirable. I generally try to take plays as they come, but I could not watch Pitbulls without mentally comparing it to Sticks and Bones, a play that won both a best-play Tony and a best-play award from the Outer Critics Circle. Mr. Rabe is a celebrated figure, while Mr. Adkins’s play is relegated to a rickety downtown stage where a few patrons pay an admissions price equivalent to what they’d pay in sales tax on a Broadway ticket, if Broadway tickets did not have the remarkable benefit of being exempt from such taxes. The audience at Pitbulls was getting the better deal in every sense.
And such good deals are hard to find. In truth, I had been seriously considering ending my engagement with the theater long before I endured Sticks and Bones, and this will in fact be my final regular theater column for The New Criterion. I have come to the conclusion that the New York theater scene represents a sub-optimal investment of my time. I am proud to have spent these years covering theater for this, the best of our arts-and-culture journals, and I am grateful to Roger Kimball for having given me the opportunity to do so, an unexpected invitation but a gratifying one. I hope to continue my association with The New Criterion in other ways.
One expects most of what one sees at the theater to disappoint; that is the nature of the project. When the ratio of the satisfying to the complete wastes of time is one to five, then I have the feeling that I am having a pretty good month. When the ratio is one to twenty, then it is probably time to move on and to allow a fresh set of eyes to take in what Broadway et al. have to offer.
But it is not merely that New York theater seems to have taken a turn for the worse in the past year or so—simple incompetence is not too hard to bear. Rather, productions such as the Public Theater’s politicians-and-Muppets pageant and Mr. Rabe’s insistently banal malice suggest that the theatrical establishment is not so much indifferent to its audience—though indifference at $250 a seat would be bad enough—but rather that it is hostile toward it, holding the audience in contempt. And the audiences, often enough, merit that contempt—I will not rehearse the various etiquette complaints that I have made about New York audiences over the past several years beyond noting that the boorish, boobish, attention-deficient population of Manhattan theatergoers makes it difficult to enjoy (or even to really experience, in some cases) the good work that is put on, while the venues themselves are managed by organizations that are by all indicators content to allow the atmosphere to degenerate into something like a Bon Jovi concert. In this the New York theater, which endlessly congratulates itself on its national preeminence, is in fact inferior to its provincial counterparts. Audiences in Burbank and Dallas, perhaps because they are not so spoiled for options as New Yorkers, are by comparison practically Victorian in their sense of propriety. But one cannot very well be a theater critic while eliminating New York.
That being the case, I’d like to offer my thanks to the editors and staff of The New Criterion, especially to my friend Roger Kimball, to the readers who have written to concur with, criticize, or correct me, and to the gifted people behind the handful of truly remarkable shows I have seen in the past several years. At its best, there is nothing quite like actors on a stage in front of you. Theater is a medium that deserves better than it is getting.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 49
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