Sam Shepard takes an extremely literal position on that folksy adage about the futility of persisting in a lost cause. Director-scribe illustrates the obvious, in “Kicking a Dead Horse,” via the seriocomic dilemma of a city slicker whose horse ups and dies when he rides into the desert on a mission to recover the truth and inspiration he once found in the American West. Even with Stephen Rea re-creating his starring role in the original Abbey Theater production — not to mention the huge horse carcass taking up much of the stage — the piece is all metaphor and no drama.
Here’s what isn’t on the stage: an angry young man, his character forged by the values of the American West that both nurture and confine him, locked in battle with the corrupt father figure who first built and then poisoned the golden land. That’s the kind of play Shepard (“Buried Child,” “Fool for Love,” et al.) might have written in his salad days, when an artist could still believe in the transformative powers of art to heal a nation and redeem its lost sons.
The cranky play that the mature Shepard has actually written (his first since 2004) holds out no hope for redemption, through art or anything else. Not for a man who has sold out his youthful ideals and grown too old and rich and rigid to mend his ways. Which is the self-flagellating point of the parody that the scribe has made of his life’s work, reducing it to the “sentimental claptrap” of the Old West that Hobart Struther (Rea) peddles as a Manhattan art dealer.
In this autobiographical context, those invigorating old Shepardian debates between father and son, hostile siblings and feuding lovers are just not worth arguing anymore. So not worth arguing, in fact, that this existential tall tale is no debate at all, but an extended interior monologue. The only visual jolt is the fleeting appearance of a spacey girl (Elissa Piszel) — and the larger metaphorical presence of that danged horse, of course.
Struther seems an appealing sad sack in Rea’s plea-bargaining perf as he plaintively whines about the stroke of bad luck that brought a halt to his “grand sojourn” into the desert on a late-life “quest for authenticity.” So heartfelt is Rea that we feel gooey feelings for Struther as he ruefully laments the setting sun of Western history and legend, a metaphor splashed across Brien Vahey’s surreal set by John Comiskey’s droll lighting design.
But as Struther persists in kicking the horse carcass that absolutely refuses to tumble into the open grave he spent the night digging, Rea reveals the sorry truth of his character — too weak to will artistic inspiration back to life and too weak to bury it once and for all.
Point taken. But having dragged it out, scribe is reluctant to examine it for fleas. Instead of rigorous argument from other interested parties, Struther’s only challenger is his own inner BS-detector, who manifests in exchanges that have Rea shifting voice levels and hopping all over the stage. While this alter ego does nag him relentlessly, self-loathing is hard to dramatize, and Struther could really use some punk kid or angry wife (or talking horse) to engage him in a real fight for his soul.
Not that there isn’t plenty of anger in this piece, but not much of the lethal variety that transcends its immediate subject and pulls down the whole temple. Shepard finally gives that to us in a furious speech at the end of the play, a stunning litany of barbaric highlights in America’s long criminal history of “taming” the West. But outside that electrifying moment, there’s little heat — or threat — in Rea’s bleeding-heart perf and Shepard’s own soft-pedal direction.
Yet Shepard is still Shepard, and it would be worth seeing what a vigorous American company might do with this material. Play it angrier, rip out its heart, kick it harder.