Outrageous Fortune breathes morbid air into ‘Buried Child’

By Eileen Morrison Darren

The Outrageous Fortune Company’s latest effort is an ambitious production of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Buried Child,” a work in which grotesque realism is juxtaposed with symbolism in a stinging indictment of the myth that is the American Dream.

But the characters behave more like creatures who have barely shaken off the primordial ooze than members of a modern family, American or otherwise, and what Shepard may actually be getting at in this unabashedly bizarre and funny play is that the bedrock elements of human nature are the same across cultures, and across generations.

“Buried Child” is rank with facile symbolism, taking every opportunity to skewer our romantic notions about the ideal family, our dependence on religion as a moral compass, and our endless capacity for denial of our many sins, the most vile of which is violence. It is impossible in this short space to document the symbolism that inhabits every word, pause, sound, prop, and lighting effect that we see and hear on stage over the course of the action of the play.

Set in a dilapidated farmhouse in the American Midwest, the play opens with Paul Navarra, who revels in the role of Dodge, the hostile, whiskey-swilling and impotent “man of the house,” wallowing on the couch in front of a silent television. Dodge lies there coughing and hacking, while his wife, Halie, loudly expresses her none-too-sincere concern from off stage, and tells him to get ready, in case they might be having company. But Dodge isn’t interested in the traditional trappings of the patriarch; he hasn’t got “a pipe, a Wall Street Journal, or a fat Labrador Retriever” to use as props for the sake of company.

Dodge’s wife Halie, played with all of her bald-faced disregard for others by Sonya Tannenbaum, has needs, too. But hers are of the carnal variety. The blatant sexuality of this holier-than-thou hypocrite is at the very heart of the tragedy that has shattered this bizarre and frightening “family,” whose members are not above incest or even murder.

And Halie’s past mistakes do not deter her from carousing around town and seducing the local priest, the smarmy Father Dewis, played by Spencer Cohen

In what is sometimes an hilarious exercise, we find ourselves howling with laughter at the lowbrow misfits whose speech and behavior bring to mind both the lovable folks from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and the frightening and dangerous men from “Deliverance.”

The couple’s eldest son, Tilden, a rather vacant but affable fellow, played with aplomb by Edward Kassar, has returned to the farm, but his parents have barely noticed, and care even less, until he shocks them by bringing into the house a burgeoning crop of vegetables from fields at the back of the house which haven’t been planted in years. In Tilden’s mild manners and insistence that it’s time for the family to acknowledge the awful sin committed in the past, the characters may find some hope for the future.

Paul Newport, in the role of Tilden’s brutish brother, Bradley, is utterly terrifying. This one-legged psychotic tortures Dodge, menaces everyone in the house and leaves no doubt that he is capable of boundless violence, a belief that is justified by an incident later in the play.

Tilden’s son, Vince, played with quiet intensity by Ryan Etzel, arrives at the old homestead, along with his girlfriend, Shelly, to visit the family after an absence of many years. Though his father and grandfather don’t seem to know him, Vince will not be deterred in his quest for acceptance and his rightful role in the family.

Deborah Baum, as the feisty and forthright Shelly, lays claim to the standout performance of evening. She is an outsider with whom the audience can easily identify. She is shocked when she first encounters the bizarre members of her boyfriend’s family; she’s assaulted violently during the performance. Finally, she begins recognize herself in the outrageous characters and realizes that she is, at her core, very like the others. But this doesn’t stop her, or us, from running from the truth at the end of the evening.

For a hoot and a holler and some genuine Sam Shepard-style “Cowboy Mouth” philosophy, the Outrageous Fortune Company’s daring production will fit the bill. But bring your seat belt, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

“Buried Child” will be presented March 12-14, with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets and information, call Outrageous Fortune at 718-428-2500, or the box office at Queens Theater in the Park at 718-760-0064.

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