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A CurtainUp Review
The Mound Builders
"Why did they build the mounds? They built the mounds for the same reason I'd build the mounds. Because I wanted to make myself conspicuous; to sacrifice to the gods; to protect me from floods, or animals; because my grandfather built mounds; because I was sick of digging holes; because I didn't have the technology to build pyramids and a person isn't happy unless he's building something." — Dan
The Mound Builders
Zachary Booth and Will Rogers
(Photo: Richard Termine)
There is the aura of a very old B movie here, say from around the very late 1920s, when long stretches of dialogue were spoken by people talking to or at each other mostly from stationary positions so the actors would not to leave the area where microphones were carefully placed and hidden. It was quite a novelty at one time just to hear the sound of the human voice.

But there's no novelty in the tedium that comes from listening to the endlessly pontificating science-saturated characters in Lanford Wilson's 1975 play The Mound Builders. That's even if they actually do get to move a bit about their quarters.

In these characters' various fields of highly qualified expertise, questions are posed and answered at great length. Questions range from whether archaeologists ought to or ought not take their wives and relatives on digs, and whether ancient Indian burial grounds should make way for a modern hotel and highways.

If the dialogue is what's 0meant to be the saving grace of this protracted talkfest, it isn't. The exception is when it is being spoken by the least erudite and intellectually bright character in the interesting actor Will Rogers. Rogers, who was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in 2012 for his work in Unnatural Acts at Classic Stage Company, plays the outsider — a local who has tentatively ingratiated himself among a small group of scientists, their wives, one eleven-year-old daughter and one of the scientist's loony sister.

The group, led by archeologist Professor August Howe (David Conrad), has gotten permission to return to a section of the Blue Shoals area of Illinois owned by Chad's father to continue their archeological research and the necessary digging for buried artifacts and treasures of an ancient civilization. Surprise, surprise! It is Howe's assistant, Dr. Dan Loggins (Zachary Booth), who is figuratively and literally destined to be sacrificed to the ancient gods in this tediously philosophical play?

The events leading up to the tragic finale are presented through flashback, as narrated by a droning Conrad. His talk is illustrated with some authentic-looking slides of a dig, as well as with flashes of his family at work and at play.

The play appears mainly concerned with Chad's growing apathy and distrust towards the various occupants of the household as well as his increasing anxiety about reaping hoped for financial gain by putting up a hotel on the excavation site. But anxiety doesn't stop the increasingly unhinged Chad from having a furtive sexual dalliance with Howe's restless wife and professional photographer Cynthia (Janie Brookshire); lusting rather brazenly after Dan's pregnant gynecologist wife Dr. Jean Loggins (Lisa Joyce); and once, after a fishing expedition, even attempting to seduce a very drunk Dan.

Rachel Resheff is fine as the eleven-year-old Kirsten, who appears mature enough to ignore what's obviously going on. Would that we had her option?

Most undeniably un-hinged of all these peple them all is Howe's presumably convalescing sister Delia (Danielle Skraastad). She's a successful writer and international gadabout who, full of self-pity and self-loathing, mostly sits on the sofa being critical of everyone and everything when she isn't simply looking as if she is in a state of mind somewhere between crazed and dazed.

The interior of the wooden cabin setting designed by Neil Patel survives the violent rain storm and the ensuing rage (as perpetrated by the terrific Rogers) that marks better Act II that follow the interminable and boring Act I.

Jo Bonney's direction of this play is undoubtedly responsive to Wilson's gift for lyrical realism. So too are the actors in their efforts to excavate and resuscitate Wilson's often poetic, but mainly gimme-a-break, dialogue.

More important than knowing why the ancients were compelled to build mounds is why the powers that be at The Pershing Square Signature Theater thought this of the many fine plays by Wilson (Talley's Folly is a lovely play now being given a splendid revival at the Roundabout's Laura Pel Theater) was the one most worthy of digging up.

The Mound Builders By Lanford Wilson Directed by Jo Bonney

Cast: David Conrad (Professor August Howe), Janie Brookshire (Cynthia Howe), Rachel Resheff (Kirsten), Will Rogers (Chad Jasker), Zachardy Booth (Dr. Dan Loggins), Lisa Joyce (Dr. Jean Loggins), Danielle Skraastad (Delia Eriksen)
Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
(212) 244 - 7529
The Romulus Linney Courthouse Theater at the Pershing Square Signature Theater, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: $25.00
Performances: Tuesday through Friday at 7:30PM; Saturday at 8PM; Matinees at 2PM on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.
From 02/26/13 Opened 03/17/13 Ends 04/14/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/20/13
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