“Sticks and Bones” at the New Group at the Pershing Square Center (Closed Sunday December 14, 2014)

By David Rabe
Directed by Scott Elliott
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“You would not see. I can’t get beyond these hands. I jam in the fingers. I break on the bone. I am lonely. I mean, oh, no, not exactly lonely, not really. That’s a little strong, actually.” (Ozzie to David)

As soon as Rick (Raviv Ullman) enters his family’s house in David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,” the audience knows it is in for a bumpy ride. After a somewhat serious chat with Father Donald (Richard Chamberlain) during which the good priest attempts to recruit Ozzie (Bill Pullman) to coach the church basketball team, the play’s tone shifts and the sitcom on steroids atmosphere signals the audience to prepare for occasional brain-freeze. This is not a drama for the weak of heart or the closed of mind. David’s return and soldier story paves the way for Ozzie’s story to unlock Pandora ’s Box with little chance for finding hope at its bottom.

Blinded in action in the Vietnam War, David (Ben Schnetzer) returns home (escorted by the heartless Sergeant Major played to perfection by Morocco Omari) to be further blindsided by the disturbing events that occur in his seemingly innocent household. His post-war presence sets off a firestorm of truth-telling that chills to the bone and engages David’s white stick in family (and priestly) battles. Their older son’s experiences in Vietnam, including his relationship with Zung (Nadia Gan) whose presence continues to haunt him in the present, are simply too much for Ozzie and Harriet and David’s younger brother Rick. David’s presence exposes heretofore carefully guarded layers of greed, selfishness, anger, disappointment, regret, and unfulfilled dreams.

Rick is completely self-centered and unable to connect to his family on any emotional level. Harriet (Holly Hunter) has lived an unfulfilling life as wife and mother extraordinaire. Ms. Hunter gives a remarkable performance as a woman who is nothing more than a puppet whose voice is not her own and whose movements have always been controlled by others. Ozzie lives in the past and realizes his present is nothing more than a lie which allows him to survive. Bill Pullman delivers a powerful and often disturbing performance as a man who is less than a shell of a man whose veneer of sanity could crack at any moment. David’s return, his neediness, his honesty, rattle the chains of “the fraud that has kept [his family] sane.” They snap and can only survive if David is gone again – for good.

Under Scott Elliott’s inventive and generous direction, fantasy and reality vie for the audience’s understanding of the action in “Sticks and Bones” and often upstage each other. Despite generous (and glorious) hints given by lighting designer Peter KIaczorowski, it is often quite difficult to sort out what is a present reality, what is a dream sequence, or what just might be a tantalizing dose of magical realism. That action culminates in David’s total rejection of his family’s world view and moral structure. With his “new sight,” David describes the family house: “It’s a coffin. You made it big so you wouldn’t know, but that’s what it is, a coffin, and not all the curtains and pictures and lamps in the world can change it. They threw you off that fast free train, Ozzie.”

“Sticks and Bones” follows the “rules” of the psychopathology of the dysfunctional family: the dysfunctional family (Ozzie, Harriet, Rick and pre-war David) has managed to remain intact (despite underlying pathology) until one member makes a change and refuses to go along with the old rules. David experiences a new vision while in the thick of war, He experiences unconditional love (even under the worst of circumstances) and he will never be the same. His family cannot incorporate this “new” David into their pathology and has to dispose of him or facilitate his disposal of himself. This is shocking. This is real. This is “Sticks and Bones.”