The New Group kicks off its 20th anniversary season with a winner: a powerful revival of David Rabe’s harrowing 1971 black comedy, “Sticks and Bones.” Masterfully helmed by company a.d. Scott Elliott, the production stars Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter (both sensational) as Ozzie and Harriet, savage caricatures of the archetypal all-American mom and dad who are dumbfounded by the transformation of their soldier son who fought in Vietnam and returns home blind. Shocking in its day, the play still packs a mighty emotional wallop.
Most war-themed books and plays take a decade or so for their authors to process (i.e., recover from) the experience. But like “The Basic Education of Pavlo Hummel” and “Streamers,” the other plays in Rabe’s Vietnam War trilogy, “Sticks and Bones” was written while this deeply unpopular war (in which the playwright served) was still raging in Indochina. Which surely goes to explain why the emotions feel so raw.
In bare outline, the plot sounds like a bit of a weeper: A discharged soldier, blinded in battle, returns home to a family (mom, dad, little bro) that fails to recognize the all-American boy who went off to be a soldier in this sullen, angry veteran who came back from the war. Haven’t we seen this movie?
But Rabe’s surreal vision of the soldier’s homecoming wipes out any trace of conventional naturalism when the Sergeant Major (a nice cameo from Morocco Omari) arrives at the front door with David (clean-cut-American boy Ben Schnetzer). Once he hands off his charge, this multi-medaled Army officer has many more wounded soldiers to deliver to their families. In fact, he’s got a whole convoy of trucks backed up out there, bound for destinations all across America. “And when I get back they’ll be layin’ all over the grass, layin’ there in pieces all over the grass, their backs been broken, their brains jellied, their insides turned into garbage,” he says, explaining why “I don’t have time for coffee.”
In the scribe’s bleak view of the American family, itself a microcosm of America the nation, nobody wants to see or hear or think about such atrocities. So long as it stays out of sight and out of mind, the war doesn’t exist. A living ghost like David, who literally brings the war home with him, is best kept hidden away in his room — which is where he does spend much of the play, communing with the very palpable ghost (played by Nadia Gan) of a young Vietnamese prostitute he loved.
There’s nothing harder to play than caricature, but Elliott’s superb cast does a brilliant job of finding enough humanity in Rabe’s Ugly American family to save them from becoming comic-strip monsters. Ozzie (Pullman) and Harriet (Hunter) may be willfully blind to their son’s physical and psychological wounds and callously indifferent to the war that inflicted them. But these sitcom puppets aren’t as oblivious as they seem, and their sudden flashes of insight are all the more chilling for being so quickly and thoroughly suppressed.
In Pullman’s deeply insightful perf, Dizzy Dad Ozzie may be a perfect fool, but he comes by his foolishness honestly as the victim of his absolute faith in every bogus imperative of the American Dream. “He bewilders you, doesn’t he?” Harriet astutely notes of his reaction to his scary son. “You thought you knew what was right, all those years, didn’t you, teaching him sports and fighting.” Once he admits that his son is broken, he’s forced to acknowledge the wreckage of his own sorry life. Despite the vile things his character says about “yellow people,” Pullman makes the struggle more pathetic and more honorable than it might be played.
Harriet is also more sympathetic than expected, given the shallowness of her paper-thin character. Credit Hunter for transforming her giddy dithering into the full-blown hysteria of a woman who is absolutely terrified to admit that her picture-perfect family is composed of imposters. Whenever she glimpses something she can’t bear to look at — like the girl upstairs in David’s bed — her impulse is to call Father Donald, the very handsome priest played by the very handsome Richard Chamberlain. Tiny-boned as a baby bird, this amazing thesp has the energy — and heart — of an eagle.
Only young Rick (Raviv Ullman) seems genuinely insensible to the family drama, cheerfully bouncing in and out of the kitchen to fuel up on soda and fudge before bounding out of the house on one of his many mysterious but surely wholesome outings. Ricky’s intelligence seems to be as limited as his dialogue. (“Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! Hi, David!” he chirps, whenever he drops by to play a tune on his guitar. “Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad! Bye, David!” he chirps, whenever he leaves.) But in Ullman’s shrewd performance, he’s only laying low and conserving his energy for initiating the devastating final scene of the play.
The play’s problems are the same as they were in the original production. A number of overwritten or unnecessary scenes drag it out to an uncomfortable playing length. And David’s poetic ravings to his Vietnamese lover are painfully woozy. Given that the whole point of the play is to rub our noses in the ugly reality of war, what’s really called for are images as raw and horrifying as those the Sergeant Major shoved in our faces.