We gave it a C+
Cellos always lend a sense of red-purplish fear to any drama. It’s the sound you’ll hear emanating from a two-man string band, performing in a cubbyhole on the stage as the audience takes their seats for Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)—playing through Jan. 4 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. What you won’t notice is that there’s another person onstage before the play begins, tucked away in a rather unpleasant place, whose presence is later unveiled. The surprise of that revelation goes to the heart of what’s possible and dangerous in live theater. Unfortunately, Shepard and director Nancy Meckler fail to sustain that dramatic tension, resulting in an 85-minute slog of a thriller so muddled that even its obliqueness feels predictable.
The idea of Shepard, that taciturn chronicler of American woe, taking on an adaptation of Oedipus Rex bursts with promise. And a version of the Sophocles tragedy about a king who murders his father and marries his mother shows up here, though it’s uninterestingly mashed together with another narrative, concerning a roadside massacre in the California desert.
In the latter scenario, an officer (Jason Kolotouros) and a forensics expert (Matthew Rauch)—whose bantering Frick-and-Frack act quickly grows tired—begin to investigate, as a bored married couple (Stephen Rea and Brid Brennan) read of the murders in the newspaper and become curious enough to visit the crime scene.
Most of the actors play more than one part, including the wonderfully hangdog Rea, who seems hardly to have aged in the 22 years since The Crying Game, and clearly relishes the nasally Southwest accent that one of his characters speaks with for half the play. His different roles, and those of the other performers, frequently bleed into each other. (With special emphasis on the bleeding.)
The set is designed as a nightmare sprung to life—a clothesline hangs sheets of skin, amid floor-to ceiling ivory tile, all smeared with gore. The tableau should be frightening, but Shepard’s writing buries the rich nuggets of psychological horror rather than unearth them. And his awkward name-dropping of Facebook and Twitter in one scene works mainly to underline what a laconic, 71-year-old gent Shepard truly is. For a play about butchery, A Particle of Dread lacks fresh meat. C+