Sticks and Bones

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David Rabe's Sticks and Bones

The New Group | NYC

directed by Scott Elliott

Some productions deal in subtleties – the mental landscapes shifting subtly as sunlight through passing clouds. The New Group’s revival of David Rabe’s 1971 play is one of them, making his unsettling evocation of a blind Vietnam veteran’s homecoming an intensely claustrophobic broadcast of interlocking jet-streams, atmospheres and gathering storms.

Toting his kitbag and a white cane, David is offloaded like a suspicious package into a home that’s not quite sure how to deal with his return, his personality newly sprung with quirks and sensitivities. Ben Schnetzer simmers with an edgy fear as he fumbles his way round a home that sometimes feels right, sometimes utterly wrong – then gains a new manic energy as he gets the rest of the family twitching and sparking alongside him. They completely lack the emotional or psychological resources to withstand him. Bill Pullman is endlessly, winsomely complex as his father Ozzie, half-senile and lost in memories of his days with the boys but he’s lost none of his nastiness along with his marbles. He sparks off Holly Hunter as Harriet, a mother with the mothballed mannerisms of a girl from a 1950s musical, and starved of interaction until she’s left constantly offering coffee, fudge, and cake like a malfunctioning animatronic waitress. David’s brother Rick is still shallower – his guitar slung upside-down on his back, he strolls in and barks out “Hi Mom, hi Dad”, giving the bare minimum of peppy social engagement to keep his culturally- hallowed status as a “good kid”.

Above them, David’s room is a constant reproach to their unswerving faith in the US military, and a filthy space which oozes contagion into the rest of the house. Derek McLane’s set and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design ingeniously conspire to transform this mundane space, decked with sports paraphernalia that’s hung there since his all-American childhood. Light shines through wallpaper-cloaked slats in the wall, and the living room below’s wholesome 1970s decorative fixation on wood, brick, and texture suddenly glow and project this small Texan space into the alien territory its inhabitants have been meddling in, however unwittingly.

As Rabe’s text swims further away from nuclear domesticity, David’s Vietnamese lover Zung (Nadia Gun) moves in like a spirit – first she scares him, then they become wordlessly complicit lovers. She’s a delicate bulwark against the attitudes of his parents, but the idea of her repulses them – Ozzy imagines her in a stream of consciousness tangled through with imagery of rotting diseased flesh and degradation, and his mother is physically sick. Their racism is horrendous, and their language is still more powerful as an interpolation in their limited domestic vocabulary of cake, cookies, fudge, sport. Rabe’s text uses these patterning words like radio-show catchphrases, and emphasising that there’s nothing in the family’s collective lexicon to deal with the realities either of a morally grey war, or of love that doesn’t fit their whiter-than-white cinematic template.

The play’s hectic building momentum moves from a soured dream of homecoming to a feverish nightmare, haunted and saturated by David’s own distorted viewpoint. Scott Elliott’s direction makes this transition fluid and inexorable as the blood that seeps from David’s veins – a draining, heart-stopping thing to witness.

photo | ©Monique Carboni

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