We gave it an A
David Rabe’s blistering Vietnam-era play Sticks and Bones—currently playing in a galvanizing, brilliant revival by the New Group through Dec. 14 at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre—is one of those works that can crash and burn at the slightest misappropriation. Controversial even upon its 1971 debut when American troops were in the thick of the events presented, the play straddles the finest line of outrage and black-as-tar comedy. It provoked walkouts in its time and, later, a refusal by many local affiliates to air a subsequent television version. One false move by any creators can easily tip the play into either silliness, or worse, indifference.
Scott Elliott’s expertly rendered production (which trims the text down just a tad) not only fully honors playwright Rabe’s adventurous, uncompromised intentions, but quite possibly makes the prose more relevant than ever thanks to the rise of PTSD. David (wonderfully played by rising star Ben Schnetzer, currently seen in the film Pride) is an all-American boy back from the war, now blind and rage-fueled, under the care of his TV-branded parents, Ozzie (Bill Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter), who also have a bratty, guitar-toting, fudge-loving son Rick (Raviv Ullman, piercingly funny).
While David stews upstairs—in the upper-right section of set designer Derek McLane’s terrific, dual-level Brady Bunch-esque dwelling—the parentals bury their heads in minutiae; Ozzie, a Depression-era survivor, likes to tell tales of outrunning bowling balls when not unleashing his unseemly, often gruesome inner thoughts via monologue, while mom plies them all with food and obsessively cleans, almost as if she were trying to erase the grime of generational ugliness. Also, there’s Zung (Nadia Gan), the ghostlike Vietnamese girl who David often speaks of but only he really seems to see, who perches in on the tense family gatherings and mainly hides out in his room.
Yes, Sticks and Bones is meant to be a brutal comedy, though one in which the laughs cut deep, much like the razor blades David is discovered to have sewn into his military cap. The astonishing cast here, though, plumbs depths of zany, deep-seated paranoia that make the outcome more than a series of performed italics: Hunter, tapping back into the whirling-dervish energy that made her a star in early films like Raising Arizona, is a stylized marvel, and her work with Pullman—already an expert at unveiling the delicacies of difficult material (as in his work performing Edward Albee and David Mamet)—suggests a duo for the ages. (The real Ozzie and Harriet were never this much fun to watch.) Even veteran actor Richard Chamberlain—a more grounded presence in this askew universe—manages to make a significant impression in very little stage time as a family priest, and uses his sonorous voice to great, creepy effect.
Startlingly, 43 years has not dulled the play’s impact in the slightest; in fact, it’s amazing to think it ever played Broadway in any fashion, let alone win the Tony for Best Play, given the no-punches-pulled nature of Rabe’s wince-inducing but undeniably poetic narrative. But given the hard-earned rewards Sticks and Bones provides, only a fool would dare bob and weave. A