Monday, November 24, 2014

Sticks and Bones

The 1950s and early 1960s masqueraded as an innocent time in the United States, and nowhere was the masquerade more vivid than on television, with its faux perfect white families with their faux problems and their faux reality. In his deeply disturbing play, Sticks and Bones, David Rabe uses one of those families--Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson--as his canvas to show how America's war in Vietnam stripped the United States of its masks and revealed the confusion, hatred, and violence underneath. What raises this angry comedy to brilliance is Rabe's compassion for the faux perfect family as their willful blindness is destroyed when David, the older son, returns from Vietnam suffering from actual blindness.

Raviv Ullman, Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter,
Ben Schnetzer, and Morocco Omari
Photo: Monique Carboni
In a way, the main conflict in Sticks and Bones is between reality and denial: David can only survive with reality, and the others can only survive in denial. [spoiler] This is why the family is so eager to aid David by helping him to kill himself. It is not his pain that are seeking to end, it is their own, and they are all willing to have him die for their sins. [end of spoiler]

The excellent New Group production, well-directed by Scott Elliott, makes full use of the frequently painful three hours, doing justice to the play's pathos and humor, its heart and its ugliness. Bill Pullman is, as always, astonishing. He makes Ozzie a fully human cartoon, if such a thing can exist, and somehow lets us see the range of emotions roiling unexplored beneath Ozzie's jovial surface. Holly Hunter is less successful with Harriet, relying too much on a shrill hysteria, but she has extremely effective moments. Ben Schnetzer gives a powerful performance as the terribly wounded David, and Richard Chamberlain is successfully unctuous as the priest who tries to "help" him. Nadia Gan, Morocco Omari, and Raviv Ullman are also very good.

The set, designed by Derek McLane, is perfect. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, costumes by Susan Hilferty, and sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen all make strong contributions. The projection design by Olivia Sebesky is beautiful and disturbing.*

I saw the original production of Sticks and Bones. I was young, and I simply wasn't ready for it. Even now, decades later, it retains its power to lacerate.

(7th row, on the aisle, press tickets)

*Note: projection design was incorrectly credited to Valeria A. Peterson, who is the show's Production Stage Manager.


Cameron Kelsall said...

I think we had opposite reactions about the acting--I thought Hunter was more successful than Pullman--but I pretty much agree with your review overall. It's one hell of a production. I'd like to go back and see it again, but I'm not sure I'm emotionally up for it.

Wendy Caster said...

I had much the same feeling--wanting to see it again but not having the fortitude. And those actors do it 8 times a week!