We know “a Sam Shepard actor” when we see one. He’s lean and weather-beaten and never far from a bottle. A mean look in his eye suggests he might be dangerous, or maybe just crazy. There’s a bona fide Sam Shepard actor in director Scott Elliott’s uneven revival of “Buried Child” (a play that won the Pulitzer in 1979) for the New Group. It’s Ed Harris, who is mesmerizing as Dodge — one of those patriarchal figures, central to the work of this playwright, whose past sins are visited on his sons and on the American wasteland where they live.
Dodge is the paterfamilias of one of those freakish families Shepard presents to us as the face of the American West. He’s a wreck of a man, weak and sickly and bossed around by his shrew of a wife, Halie (Amy Madigan, Harris’s own wife). Signs of his failure are everywhere, from the shabby farmhouse that seems to be sinking into the ground to the arid vegetable garden that hasn’t had a healthy crop since 1935. But his most outstanding failures are surely his good-for-nothing sons, Bradley (Rich Sommer, familiar from “Mad Men”), who is cruel, and Tilden (Paul Sparks), who is simple-minded.
The way Harris plays Dodge, there are still vestiges of strength in the old reprobate. He looks harmless, sprawled on the couch and half-smiling to himself while the commotion of the household buzzes around him. And there’s something hypnotic about the quiet self-containment of Harris’s performance. But whenever the old lion snaps back at his wife or roars at one of his sons, you can feel the will of a man who did some pretty awful things in his day.
Shepard’s theatrical idiom is stark poetic realism that gradually gives way to surreal lunacy. On the same day that Tilden’s reasonably normal son, Vince (Nat Wolff), returns to the old homestead with his girlfriend Shelly (a nice, crisp performance from Taissa Farmiga of “American Horror Story”), the barren garden produces a bumper crop of corn and carrots. But there are still some dark secrets that remain to be dug up before the younger generation can inherit and fully revitalize this dead land.
Shepard’s idiosyncratic style is not for the faint of heart, as this tentative production illustrates. In general, the actor seem all too aware that they’re acting in a seminal 20th century work about the collapse of an agrarian economy, the breakdown of the family and the death of the American Dream. They should keep a closer eye on Harris, who’s just playing a dirty old man who thought he’d gotten away with his sins.