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Sticks and Bones

Scott Elliott's revival of David Rabe's 1972 Tony Award winner for Best Play is uneven in tone and lacks cohesion as no one in this family connects.

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Bill Pullman and Ben Schnetzer in a scene from “Sticks and Bones” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

When David Rabe won the 1972 Tony Award for Best Play for Sticks and Bones, it was perceived as a scathing indictment of American hypocrisy, bigotry and racism during the Vietnam War era. Forty-two years later, The New Group is giving this play its first major New York revival, directed by Scott Elliott who also staged The New Group’s revival of Rabe’s Hurlyburly. While the play is still powerful, Elliott seems to be unable to give the play an even tone as the production veers from satire to realism, expressionism, surrealism and tragicomedy, and finally tragedy. At three hours, the play now seems less shocking than too long and repetitious. With a cast headed by legendary stage and screen actors Holly Hunter, Bill Pullman and Richard Chamberlain, the production seems at least partly miscast with the performers all inhabiting separate worlds.

An army draftee, Rabe wrote a trilogy of plays inspired by his Vietnam experience (Sticks and Bones, 1971; The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, 1972; and Streamers, 1976) as well as The Orphan, 1972, a modern retelling of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia. In Sticks and Bones, David, a blinded Vietnam veteran, returns to the Middle America home of his parents Ozzie and Harriet in a typical suburban town. He cannot adjust, first claiming that the air in the house is all wrong. His parents attempt to ignore his blindness, his inability to eat, and the fact that he had a relationship with a Vietnamese girl, while David spends most of his time in his room. His 17-year-old brother Rick who carries a guitar at all times, whose only remarks to his parents are “Hi, Mom, hi, Dad,” and is always looking for ice cream and fudge can’t wait until “everything’s back to the regular way.”

The first sign that something surrealistic is going on is when the outside door burst opens and David’s Vietnamese girlfriend Zung is standing in the doorway. Harriet simply goes to the door and slams it in her face. From then on we are never entirely certain whether her appearances are imagined or real, as David appears to see her but his parents don’t. Ozzie addresses the audience with his childhood memories that have defined who he has become. Both parents have nothing but contempt for “the yellow people” with whom David fraternized in Vietnam, while they find most of David’s scorn for their comfortable lives totally misplaced. After the family priest Father Donald is unable to reach David, the family decides that David must go so that things can return to the way they were.

Richard Chamberlain, Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter in a scene from “Sticks and Bones” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

The family names come from the long-running ABC situation comedy The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet which appeared on television from 1952 – 1966 and represented the idealization of the American family using the traditional values of the fifties. Unfortunately, in 2014 this show and its imitators are now only a dim memory from the past. The traditional family roles played by the father who makes the decisions, the stay-at-home mother who only cleans and serves meals, and the older and younger sons who help each other no longer dominate American society which has become more diverse since the play was written. Sticks and Bones does not seem dated as much as a period piece of a far distant time.

Elliott’s actors each seem to be in a separate play. Pullman’s brooding Ozzie seems too introspective for the empty life he is leading. Hunter’s Harriet is simply manic and hyper without suggesting that she is more than a Stepford wife. Ben Schnetzer, who appears to have filled out a great deal since his role of Max in the film of The Book Thief, visually looks too healthy to have spent time in an army hospital. Raviv Ullman is most amusing as the aimless and vacant Rick but no one else in the play is working on this level of caricature. Chamberlain’s Father Donald, spouting platitudes at all times, while not unconvincing, is mostly one dimensional. Morocco Omari’s tough, loud Sergeant Major who delivers David home to his family is in a satiric vein different from the rest of the cast. Only Nadia Gan as the ghostly Zung offers the kind of goose bumps that the others in the cast do not raise.

The set design by Derek McLane for the three-story suburban family home, circa 1971, is evocative of its era but is missing many of the accoutrements that would ground it in its time period. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are suitable but make no statement in themselves. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting is intermittently atmospheric. Only Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen’s sound design and original music are entirely successful in this context.

With Sticks and Bones‘ theme of the displacement of the returning American army veteran once again topical due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the play would seem to be entirely relevant once again. Unfortunately, Scott Elliott’s production which has a shifting tone throughout does not make a very convincing case for this Vietnam era family drama. Holly Hunter, Bill Pullman, Richard Chamberlain and company are fine actors left adrift by a flawed and confused production.

Sticks and Bones (through December 14, 2014)

The New Group

The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: three hours including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (969 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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