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Kicking a Dead Horse

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Joan Marcus

You’d never imagine that a Sam Shepard play would have such a literal title, but indeed, Stephen Rea spends a good deal of the show’s 75-minute running time kicking a dead horse. (”F—ing horse!” is his favorite refrain.) As Hobart Struther, a former art dealer having a Beckett-like war with himself while trapped in the desert with his expired equine guide (recreated with startling accuracy by scenic designer Brien Vahey), the lilting Irish actor gives an earthy, full-throttle performance. (It’s not, however, a one-man show; a mystery woman, played by Elissa Piszel, appears at a pivotal point.) Rea is filled with bristle and nuance, yet despite the perspiration his largely physical portrayal yields, he never quite seems to fit the Shepard aesthetic. Sure, his hangdog face suggests a man who has endured some wear and tear, but a sense of true grit is lacking. (And his Irish cadences inevitably invade his speeches.)

To be fair, this is one of Shepard’s stranger, more indulgent plays, and he exhibits more confidence as the director (the simple yet atmospheric stagecraft is often striking). The author’s autobiographical nature actually hampers his dialogue. For every succinct, poetic Shepardism — especially in Rea’s more reflective monologues, such as an ode to a woman of his past — there is another that reeks of Western cowboy baggage (and not the boots-and-saddles kind) that should have been put out to pasture long ago. (Tickets: 212-967-7555) C+