By: David Sheward
A pair of Off-Broadway revivals offers American theater’s response to two of the most difficult moments in our recent history: the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis. Both cataclysmic events forced average
Americans to confront the "other." In the early 1970s, a brutal foreign war was being fought in our living rooms and veterans were bringing home its traumas. Twenty years later, a ravaging plague decimated a largely ignored segment of the population and gay activists were demanding attention be paid.
David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (1971) from the New Group, and Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), at Second Stage, detail the mainstream reactions to these harrowing watershed moments in vastly different ways. Both deal with attempts to avoid unpleasant truths, but only one still resonates with the disturbing discord of its original setting.
Rabe’s play is a merciless cartoon of a typical stateside family-named for the characters on the ridiculously wholesome sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet-torn apart by the return of their eldest son David, who is scarred psychologically and physically by his experiences in Nam. He is blind and accompanied by the spectre of Zung, the Vietnamese girl he left behind, whom no one else can see. As his parents attempt to gloss over his damaged psyche with TV, snacks, and commercial-style chatter, David viciously attacks them verbally and with his walking stick. As this living-room war rages, Derek McLane’s Brady Bunch-style set is slowly transformed into an eerie battlefield by Peter Kaczorowski’s ghoulish lighting and Olivia Sebeksy’s grainy projections. It’s a nightmarish version of reality, directed with unflinching swagger by Scott Eliot. Bill Pullman delivers a frighteningly intense Ozzie. You can almost feel his jittery energy as he rapidly retreats into a fantasy vision of his youth to escape the intruder in his home. Holly Hunter’s Harriet is like a perky puppet performing a domestic dance of housekeeping to distract herself from David’s demons. Ben Schnetzer has the difficult task of humanizing the agonized David and he manages to ground the character’s dark poetry. Raviv Ullman is hilariously oblivious as the guitar-strumming younger brother Rick and Richard Chamblerlain, a veteran of the play’s era as TV’s Dr. Kildare, is like a stern figure from the past as a clueless priest.
It’s hard to believe now but Sticks made it to Broadway after a run at the Public Theater and won the Tony Award for Best Play. It would have no place on today’s Disneyfied Broadway where even most dramas have a warm and fuzzy side. This production does have a slightly dated feel and the play could stand some cutting, but it still provides a frightening caricature of an America in upheaval.
McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart takes a more realistic route, apart from pretentious and extraneous Strange Interlude-ish interior mo
nologues. The play follows two straight couples struggling through an awkward Fourth of July weekend at the Fire Island beach house one of them has inherited from her gay brother who has died of AIDS. As they attempt to ignore the reality of AIDS and the gay men surrounding them, the four deal–or fail to deal-with infidelity, illness, miscarriages, and despair. Two decades ago, this play seemed like a startlingly accurate snapshot of the way we lived then-anxious and horrified at the issues of mortality the health crisis raised-but now it seems melodramatic and forced. What a difference the right ensemble makes.
The original production at Manhattan Theatre Club boasted a powerhouse cast (Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Anthony Heald) who made the characters’ soapy troubles seem like the quintessence of the American and, by extension, human experience. Unfortunately, of the current company, only Tracee Chimo connects with the existential despair of the chatterbox Chloe who natters on about anything that comes into her head to keep the emptiness at bay. Peter Dubois’ direction overemphasizes the laughs instead of quietly playing up the couples’ desperation. As a result, the jokes aren’t funny and the quarreling quartet come across as petty and bickering rather than misguided and lonely. Alexander Dodger designed a gorgeous beachfront set, too bad you won’t want to spend time with the occupants.
Sticks and Bones: Nov. 6-Dec. 14. The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC; Tue.-Fri., 7 :30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission; $77-$97; (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Photos Sticks and Bones: Monique Carboni
Lips Together, Teeth Apart: Oct. 29-Nov. 23. Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC; schedule varies; Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including two intermissions; $60-$75; (212) 246-4422 or www.2st.com.
Photos Lips Together Teeth Apart: Joan Marcus