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A CurtainUp Review
Sticks and Bones
By Elyse Sommer
I wish I could tell you Sticks and Bones was as hopelessly dated as the sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet about the real-life Nelson family. That's the one about the archetypical fantasy American family based on the real-life Nelsons that Mr. Rabe borrowed to give a coal black comic edge to his ultimately horrifying drama.
However, the Vietnam War wasn't the last ambiguous war to end all ambiguous wars in which terrible deeds were done and witnessed. We've seen thousands upon thousands of physically and emotionally damaged soldiers returning from a decade of foreign conflicts. Some of what they experienced is still hard to communicate to their families, despite the bang-bang reportage from battlefield to the living room, now on social media gadgets as well as TV. Consequently Mr. Rabe's Vietnam drama is still depressingly relevant.
While the links to the long gone sitcom characters will only ring a bell for theater goers of a certain age, that bell need not ring to recognize Ozzie, Harriet and their sons as intentionally caricatured characters. It's their sit-comish oddness that makes the climax weirdly believable rather than unnaturally melodramatic.
The fact that these white bread American prototypes are now figures from another era, actually makes them even more apt mouth pieces for Rabe's fierce reaction to the way the war (in which he served for a year) underscored America's propensity for complacent optimism and violence. Though we've come a long way from the culture depicted in sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, ours hardly a strife and bigotry free society.
All this said, the real and surreal elements, and the thematic links between the quite different expressions of despair by the blinded veteran and his father. Fortunately, director Scott Elliott has pulled it off. He doesn't overdo the silent Vietnamese woman (Nadia Gan) who might have saved David from being consumed by rage and self-hate. Yet her hallucinatory shadow, visible only to David, appears often enough to serve as a powerful metaphor for this family's inability and unwillingness to see beyond their view of what's normal.
Elliott has guided even his most broadly caricatured characters, Harriet and younger son Rick (Raviv Ullman), to relinquish their clueless vacuity to dish up a few chilling surprises. Harriet's response to David's telling her about the woman he loved and now realizes he left behind because of the prejudices ingrained in him, is one of the play's most mesmerizing yet awful scenes.
Good as Holly Hunter and Ben Schnetzer and Raviv Ullman, the actors playing the anger ravished David and the clueless Rick are, the most interesting character, is Ozzie, the head of this pretend-perfect American Dream personifying family. Bill Pullman has submerged his movie-star handsome persona to bring a mix of ruefulness, hysteria and poignancy to this man's own trauma — the realization triggered by his son's return that his own life has been a terrible dead end. Like Ozzie in the TV series, what he does for a living is vague, the only thing specific being that it's been disappointing. As his actions to preserve that failed American Dream becomes increasingly frenzied he seemed a bit like a reincarnated Robin Williams.
The dysfunction simmering beneath this family's over-the-top normalcy is evident from the moment their son enters. You won't see a hug or a kiss to punctuate their professed joy at having David home.
A minor additional character is played by Richard Chamberlain, whose many mini series successes include the priest at the center of the super hit The Thorn Birds. His Father Donald is more falsely glib than romantic and spiritually authentic than the legendary serial's man of the cloth. A scene in which David greets Father Donald's pop-psychology counseling and offers of blessings by hitting him with a cane is an obvious attempt to support the play's claim to being categorized as a comedy.
Derek McLane's two tier set features a slightly surreal open staircase leading to David's bedroom. The living room is furnished in appropriately realistic suburban style, with the TV on wheels the dominant prop. The effectiveness of the set applies to the rest of the crafts team's work.
It's nice to see the New Group housed in the spacious Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater. However, readers accustomed to taking advantage of the Signature's bargain prices during a play's scheduled run should be aware that this is a production from The New Group. Signature's pricing initiative does not apply.