STICKS AND BONES by David Rabe, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in ’72, is currently in a revival production by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York.
David Rabe beat out the likes of Harold Pinter and Neil Simon to win the top Tony for a play he wrote while a grad student at Villanova University. A bit of history–Jim Christy directed the first production at Villanova in ’69. The second production in fall ’71 was at the Public Theater in NYC. In spring ’72 it moved to Broadway and won the Tony.
Until ‘71 Dave Rabe taught playwriting to grad students at Villanova. I was one of his students. In ‘72 I had a small part in Villanova’s production of his new In the Boom Boom Room directed by Bob Hedley. The Public Theater’s Joe Papp came down to check it out. In those days Rabe was nice, quiet, and informal, but never laid back. He was not an easy person.
STICKS AND BONES vents Vietnam era fury against a war that sent an endless stream of young men home damaged or in body bags. And it’s an indictment of the complacent, careless, and unconsciously racist average American family, represented by The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet TV show that starred Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Rick Nelson until the mid-sixties and is still running in syndication.
In David Rabe’s dark parody David returns from Vietnam blind and furious, disrupting the family and dismantling his father. Baffled, Ozzie searches through his life for answers, and repressed stuff starts seeping out in desperate, blunt poetic and anti-poetic rants and ruminations. At first Harriet and Ricky appear to be perky caricatures who are either less obviously disturbed or less able to face things they can’t acknowledge in themselves. The impression of any sort of normalcy will dissipate. But they just want David to take a few days and pull himself together.
Against the setting of an old sitcom kind of living room enhanced by dramatic lighting and video and modest music, David describes violent and nightmarish images as Harriet endlessly serves coffee, soda, fudge and popcorn, and Rick pops in and out with his guitar. David is soaked through with a barely suppressed Rabe-rage. As it escapes out, the woman David loved and abandoned in Vietnam becomes an increasingly realized ethereal presence in his life at home.
The play blindly lashes out and intermittently catches its breath only to hit again and hit harder. It turns on the pivot of Ozzie. Bill Pullman takes on the Ozzie role — grandiose, hearty, bottled up, despairing and full of anxiety – an uneasy mix that he pulls off superbly. Joining Pullman, the astutely chosen cast includes Holly Hunter, Richard Chamberlain, Ben Schnetzer, Raviv Ullman, Nadia Gan, and Morocco Omari. In their hands and those of director Scott Elliott, the play teeters on the edge between absurd farce and national tragedy. [The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY] November 11- December 14, 2014; thenewgroup.org.