STICKS AND BONES

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Written by David Rabe
Directed by Scott Elliott

In present day America, when headlines scream of ongoing conflict overseas and veteran’s suicide rates continue to climb, it would seem that a drama about the stateside repercussions of the Vietnam War would be as relevant as the day it was written. And yet, despite some brilliant touches David Rabe’s indignant  satire feels dated. It’s not the play’s milieu, but its polyglot of ideas, its confusing lulls between plot points, that make it difficult for a contemporary audience to stay with it.

As if in a modern retelling  of “The Monkey’s Paw”, Ozzie (Bill Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter), want their son David (Ben Schnetzer) to come home alive from his tour of duty in Southeast Asia. But when he arrives at their doorstep, transformed by war into a monster, they begin to wonder if the grave might be a better place for him after all. David has lost his sight overseas, but that isn’t the worst of it. Unable to resume his former life, the young veteran refuses to bathe, tells tales of carnage and torture, sulks in his room and shows no interest in adapting to civilian life. He has fallen in love with Zung (Nadia Gan) – anathema to his racist parents- and has hallucinations in which she appears to be in the house with him. Also on hand is David’s happy-go-lucky, guitar-toting younger brother Rick (Raviv Ullman). Underneath his teeny-bopper exterior, Rick seethes with resentment at his big brother’s disruption of the status quo. Father Donald (Richard Chamberlain) attempts to guide David back to the church, but his bigoted homilies only serve to make things worse. Harriet tries a gentler approach and receives physical abuse for her trouble. Finally, like the War itself, the battle for the young soldier’s soul becomes undeniably unwinnable. Passive Ozzie at last decides to take action, with shocking results.

Some of the tropes here are effective. By referencing the popular picket-fence family sitcom Ozzie and Harriet, Rabe effectively lobs a clever grenade at the collective mid-century fantasy of the picket fence purity (the conceit is given an ingenious update through the inclusion of Chamberlain, himself a major TV heartthrob of the time). The pasquinade is interlaced with surreal touches and lyrical arias. Much of this is well-written, but there are simply too many words exchanged, too many points belabored. It only takes a line or too to establish the irony of “civilized” Anglo-Saxons spewing racist invective. Yet disparaging comments about “yellow people” keep coming. Likewise, Ozzie’s retreat into nostalgia and David’s imagined betrothal to Zung are compelling at first, but lose their energy through excessive repetition. The stakes are higher in the second act, when the characters spend less time pontificating and more time fighting for what they want. Not all of the story’s turns are convincing, but that seems to be the point. The play’s final, grisly tableau is less an organic conclusion to a well-made play than a comment on the insanity of war as a rapidly spreading social contagion.

Director Scott Elliott (although he could stand to quicken his baton) draws believable, impassioned performances from a well-chosen cast. Derek McClane’s set and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design evoke a the comforting conformity of a suburban living room as well as the as the shadowy ambiguities that surround it. The efforts of the cast and crew highlight the forceful family drama, with some revision STICKS AND BONES could be. Revivals need not always treat their scripts as sacrosanct, especially when the playwright is alive and can examine his earlier work through a more mature lens. Edward Albee is known for judiciously pruning his plays when new productions are staged.  Why not Rabe?

STICKS AND BONES continues through December 14th at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, New York. Tickets and information: http://www.thenewgroup.org/

JACUZZI

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Written by Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen
Directed by Oliver Butler

Despite its cozy appearance, all is clearly not well at the Marshall family’s Colorado ski chalet. For starters, the property’s rental agency keeps leaving messages apologizing for the disappearance of Helene: the employee who was supposed to taking care of the premises. And yet somehow there’s a “Helene” (Hanna Bos), basking blithely in the eponymous hot tub with her boyfriend “Erik” (Paul Thureen). Who are these two impostors, and what have they done with the real Helene?

Fortunately for the devious duo, neither the cottage’s wealthy owner Robert (Peter Friedman) nor his pampered son Bo (Chris Lowell) asks too many questions. Deeply self-absorbed, both have their own problems to solve. Robert is a quintessential Baby Boomer, wearied by a journey from sex-and-drugs hippiedom to New Age childrearing and finally the jet-set overindulgence of 1980’s and early 90’s. He now needs to redefine himself yet again as he goes through a bitter divorce from Bo’s mother. Bo, his maturity stunted by his parents’ need to chronicle his childhood in a series of pop-psych bestsellers, has fruitlessly wandered the world in an effort to find himself. Things took a bad turn in Europe and now he’s facing possible criminal prosecution. After years of sparse contact, the two men attempt to repair their relationship. Will cunning Helene and enigmatic Erik serve as catalysts for the father-son reconciliation? Or have they got something more sinister in mind?

The atmosphere is pregnant with the possibility of sex and violence, and yet incipient plot points often evaporate as quickly as hot tub bubbles. In one particularly tense moment, for example, vulnerable Robert and Bo sit heedlessly in the warm water while Helene and Erik enter the room at the slow pace of panthers stalking their prey. Affixed to their faces are macabre Papier-mâché masks left over from one of Bo’s boyhood birthday parties. It’s a creepy tableau, cuing the audience to think it’s time for the climactic bloodbath. What we get instead is some good-natured clowning and a group photo.

So it goes throughout most of the evening: tension builds, seethes, and then subsides into silliness. And what it’s all about is never clarified. We learn through voiceover journal entries that Erik and Helene have indeed killed and buried the real caretaker. Yet their murderous, larcenous instincts are never turned on Bo and Robert. Instead the two miscreants seem content to smirk at their rich-and-clueless hosts as if the whole thing were an episode of a goofy reality show. Robert and Bo, who somehow never become suspicious of their newfound friends, give the young couple nothing much to push against.

As unfocused as it is, at least JACUZZI is never boring. The dialogue flows and the characters, even at their most narcissistic, have a quirky charm. The actors nimbly embody their archetypes and director Oliver Butler keeps the timing crisp and the entrances and exits believable. Laura Jellinek’s scenic design neatly evokes a time of VCR’s and answering machines, and puts a refreshing spin on the tradition of one-room naturalism. Built wide from left to right and shallow from upstage to down, the set frames the action with a comic strip-like visual pop that enhances the script’s oddball humor.

Despite these inspired touches, though, the show suffers from dramaturgical lopsidedness. The stakes are clear in the father-son dynamic, but the other two members of the quartet are in need of further development.

JACUZZI continues through November 15 at ARS NOVA, 511 West 54th Street, New York NY 10019. Tickets https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/dept/305/1414864724439