Americans do so much and say so much; they’re so busy, so restless, so eager to try a new fashion and a new look. You’d think this manic get-up-and-go implied a zest for living, but our playwrights know better. Here you have, giving press performances the same weekend, a classic by Christopher Durang and a new play by Sam Shepard that touches on many of his classic themes.
The two writers couldn’t be less alike: Mr. Straight Cowboy and Mr. Gay Urban Jokester, the guy who turns dysfunctional American families into metaphysical tragedy and the one who distills them down to cartoon-with-claws absurdity. But they’ve both picked up on the same truth about the deadness at the heart of America’s frenetic busyness. Many Durang plays, including The Marriage of Bette and Boo, newly revived at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, feature silent but cooperatively ambulatory corpses. Shepard’s plays are more likely to display ghosts or other unexplained visitations from the past; his new one, Kicking a Dead Horse, now getting its American premiere at the Public Theater, offers an unexplained ghostly visitor as well as the title object, which engages in Durang-like sight gags on a larger scale, befitting the wide-open spaces.
Recent Shepard plays have felt like perfunctory strolls through familiar material, not to be compared to his best work. But writers, like farmland, often need a fallow period. Although it’s nothing more than a simple bravura piece for one superb actor (longtime Shepard collaborator Stephen Rea), Kicking a Dead Horse shows Shepard back on form, not merely recapitulating old motifs but reimagining them, in ways that are often amusingly sly. Swept up by the cowboy myth and the violent intensity of Shepard’s plays, one sometimes forgets his gifts as a wit and a manipulator of stage illusion.
The dead horse of Shepard’s title belongs to Hobart Struther, a wealthy New York art dealer who, beginning as a cowhand, has made a fortune by bilking unsuspecting saloon proprietors out of genre paintings by the likes of Frederick Remington and reselling them on the international art market. Seized by the desire to get back his “authenticity,” Hobart has abandoned his business, wife, kids, and luxury apartment to ride off alone into the desert. Miscalculating its feed, he has unintentionally choked his horse to death on his first day out, and now finds himself alone in the flatlands with no idea where to turn and only a carcass for company.
The character is at once a joke and a double metaphor: Trapped in a wasteland with nothing but his dead horse and the pit he has dug to bury it in, Hobart is an image out of the Remington paintings he markets, a fact comically reaffirmed by Brian Vahey’s mock-naturalistic set with its curved-sky backdrop. At the same time, Hobart is an allegorical stand-in both for his author, a Western-reared horseman who has made his living dealing in a kind of art suffused with images of the West, and for America itself, which began as a nation of wilderness-taming pioneers and has turned into the centerless, materialistic urban bedlam that makes Hobart so miserably unhappy with himself.
Shepard has satirized America’s domestication of the Wild West myth since his early Cowboys #2; his paranoid view of commercial-industrial society as a force that kills the spirit runs through a great many of his plays. He has rarely, however, put himself so plainly into the satirical equation. Kicking a Dead Horse is an unmistakably personal play, in which the personal is political. As Hobart’s problems mount, one isn’t surprised to hear him ranting defiantly, over the noise of an approaching storm, that “we,” including himself, have “drained the aquifers [. . .] destroyed education [. . .] invaded sovereign nations,” along with a host of other crimes. Where Shepard’s recent God of Hell, way too schematically, depicted our government as an abstract tyrannical Other, in Kicking a Dead Horse, Shepard wrestles simultaneously with the problem of sustaining one’s soul in a materialist society and the equally daunting problem of reconciling individualism with democracy. His flashing leaps of thought make it a scary, impressive rhetorical display, with the pit and the carcass always there as reminders of what lies in store. Rea handles the fearsomely tricky text with stunning incisiveness, achieving flamboyance without any effortful showiness.
Durang’s Marriage of Bette and Boo uses shorthand tactics that suggest New Yorker cartoons rather than 19th-century genre painting. But Durang has subtly weighted his cartoon so that every jokey line carries an astonishing amount of emotional ballast. Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and Boo (Christopher Evan Welch) are both solipsists, from families in which each member has one verbal ax to grind and nobody’s listened to anybody else for years. Remarkably, Durang is able to suggest through the tick-tock of repeated gags the extent to which these pairs of monomaniacs actually share a life worth preserving—or could if they’d ever listen to each other.
Bette and Boo are a fatal mismatch: Their incompatible Rh factors make progeny unlikely, and Bette is crazy for children. After the birth of their one son, Matt (Charles Socarides), their marriage becomes an endless battlefield dotted with a succession of stillbirths, treated by Durang as increasingly mordant sight gags. The play is Matt’s effort to comprehend the familial mess he was born into, each scene like a new tinker-toy construction; often, scenes are interrupted and rebuilt, as if at playtime, with realities and wish fulfillments jostling each other for priority. Yet under the playful surface lie alcoholism, cancer, divorce, insanity, the willed denial that keeps couples—particularly Catholic couples—together, and all the rotten things parents do to warp their kids.
Walter Bobbie’s production errs in pushing the cartoon element too hard, as if fearing that we might not notice the play’s startling weld of kindergartenish form to dire content. Several good actors seem locked in caricature mode. But Socarides and Welch give full power to the play’s dark undercurrents, Victoria Clark and Julie Hagerty bring richness to the doomed spouses’ respective mothers, and Terry Beaver, as the clan’s overburdened priest, is definitive.