David Rabe’s seminal Vietnam-era play Sticks and Bones is a fine example of a period piece that has a hard time functioning out of its period. An increasingly surrealistic play, it darkly satirizes what happens when the typical whitebread American family is confronted with the return of their older son from the war, after he's seen and done things that have pretty much taken the whitebread out of him forever. Further banging home the point, the family names are those of the quintessential 50s sitcom; there’s father Ozzie (Bill Pullman), mom Harriet (Holly Hunter), younger son Rick (Raviv Ullman), and the returning veteran, older son David (Ben Schnetzer)—and the metaphorical question is, of course, what happens if you introduce the virus of moral ambiguity borne of atrocity into an atmosphere of happy-go-lucky WASP denial.
There is, I suppose, an academic relevancy to the New Millennium if one wishes to liken that attitude to the obstructionism and ignorance of the far right, but add the aspects of knejerk liberal youth-rebellion of nearly a half-century ago and no particular favors are done the Left either. Even that might be tolerable but for how egregiously the script is overwritten; okay, there’s a dark, secret side to Ozze and Harriet, he was a school bully, she’s prejudiced, I get it. Oh, and there’s the priest (Richard Chamberlain) who thinks he has some insight into what David is going through because he has, you know, read some psychology magazines.
As the cast list might imply, director Scott Elliott has amassed a fairly high octane ensemble; but just as he typically has trouble with comedy, particularly light comedy (i.e. he’s not your guy for Neil Simon or Herb Gardner), he seems similarly at sea finding the tone of Sticks and Bones, which waffles between the kind of verité that’s his forte, and a mild nod to Brechtian presentationalism, with which he’s uneasy. Although I think his clumsiness with comedy is a lapse, I’m hard pressed to fault Elliott too much here, because even I am not quite sure what the proper tone would be; in part because I’m not sure the play itself has a handle on one. In any event, a sure sign that something’s amiss is that at the performance I saw, Bill Pullman and Richard Chamberlain and, somewhat less, Holly Hunter, were conspicuously struggling with their lines. One could attribute a little of this to being under-rehearsed, and with Chamberlain (80), very arguably, too, to age, but Pullman (60) has been letter-perfect in every other stage performance I’ve ever seen him give; Hunter (56) starred in a TV series not too long ago; and when three veteran pros fuhmfur that much, it means they haven’t locked in; they’re not coming at it from the center of knowing their characters—and it’s a by-product of trying to make some kind of strong choice out of energy and, to one degree or another, desperation.
Lest this all sound like the production is a train wreck, not at all. It ambles along with an average competency, just not much in the way of purposeful definition. A friend of mine, an army veteran of the Sticks and Bones era, for whom its issues are significant, who accompanied me to the revival, remarked, “If it wasn’t for the provenance of this play, I can’t imagine why anyone would give it a production.” I’m inclined to think he’s right, but what’s more important is, neither one of us felt the necessity.
And with material like this, you gotta convince us…
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