Ozzie and Harriet’s son David comes home from the Vietnam War blind and traumatized in David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,” a play written during the Vietnam War that is getting a starry revival by the New Group at the Signature Theater.
David is rude, speaks cryptically when at all; he won’t eat, and, some ten minutes into the play, after he yells “Help Me! Help Me! Help Me!” a young Asian woman appears, dressed in Vietnamese garb, who remains, in ghostly silence and unseen by anybody except David, until the end of the play. His behavior is disturbing to his parents, and to Ricky, his cheerful younger brother, who carries a guitar on his back, drinks pop, eats fudge, and always offers a friendly greeting; sometimes he takes photographs of the family with his Instamatic.
A shocker of a play when it was produced first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway in 1972, it won two Tony Awards, including Best Play. It was one of a trio of war plays by Rabe, a Vietnam War veteran himself, which included “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel” and “Streamers.” The tip-off that the rarely-produced “Sticks and Bones” hasn’t aged well is in the names of his characters.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was a popular family television series, starring the real-life Nelson family – father Ozzie, mother Harriet, older brother David, and Ricky, the younger brother who became a teen heartthrob and respected rock musician. The show began in 1952 and ended in 1966 – just a few years before Rabe wrote “Sticks and Bones” at a time when the names could conjure up a white-bread suburban existence among a much larger segment of the population than it does now that all four members of the Nelson family are dead and long out of the spotlight.
But even if everybody were still familiar with the Ozzie and Harriet show, Rabe’s mockery of Middle American TV family values is out of date and obvious, and director Scott Elliott does little to make it fresh. We get what the playwright is saying about Americans’ cluelessness, hypocrisy and ugly indifference within the first 20 minutes of “Sticks and Bones” — and then have to sit through another two hours of surreal black comedy riffs until the still-effective climax jerks us back to attention.
Had you never seen Holly Hunter in some of her masterly performances — Crimes of the Heart, The Piano or Broadcast News — you would have no idea that she was such a good actress based on her exaggerated portrayal of Harriet as a perky and mousey housewife. The idea here must be to present the idealized family in order to show how inadequately they are equipped to handle the intrusion of the real world as represented by their traumatized older son. Bill Pullman gets more of a break as Ozzie, because we are meant to see, in his many long monologues, how unhinged he becomes — a seething, resentful and competitive brute beneath the lacquered amiable exterior. Ben Schnetzer as David fares better still. But two performers are inspired casting choices. Raviv Ullman portrays Ricky; it is not a nuanced performance (it supposed to be cartoonish), but it’s entertaining to realize that Ullman was himself something of a teen heartthrob, the former star of the Disney Channel series “Phil of the Future“ – and he went by the name Ricky then. But the big coup is having cast Richard Chamberlain – who played the wise and popular TV hero Dr. Kildare during the Ozzie and Harriet era – as Father Donald. It is pleasing to report that Chamberlain takes the character seriously, playing a credible human being in what could have been just as much of a cartoon role as the family to whom the priest administers useless blessings.
In theory, a play that presents the difficulty for military veterans in adjusting to civilian life would still be an important and relevant one to see. But others have come along since “Sticks and Bones,” such as The Elliot Trilogy by Quiara Alegría Hudes (including the Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful“) that deal more directly with the pain.
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Sticks and Bones
The New Group At the Pershing Square Signature Center
By David Rabe
Directed by Scott Elliott; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; projections by Olivia Sebesky; fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Cast: Richard Chamberlain (Father Donald), Nadia Gan (Zung), Holly Hunter (Harriet), Morocco Omari (Sergeant Major), Bill Pullman (Ozzie), Ben Schnetzer (David) and Raviv Ullman (Rick).
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $77.00 – $97.00
Sticks and Bones is set to run through December 14