Home from the War

Bill Pullman and Ben Schnetzer in David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center through December 14. | MONIQUE CARBONI

Bill Pullman and Ben Schnetzer in David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center through December 14. | MONIQUE CARBONI

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | While its subject matter is the Vietnam War, there is something hauntingly contemporary about the New Group’s simply splendid revival of David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones.”

First produced in 1971, while Americans were still dying in Southeast Asia, the play tells the story of David, a solider returning home blind and suffering from PTSD. His arrival back at the perfect suburban home — where his parents are named Ozzie and Harriet and his younger brother, an overly chipper, guitar-playing teenager, is Rick — completely upsets the family. When David was at a distance, it was easy to think of him as a hero. Returned and damaged, he stands as a stark repudiation of his family’s oblivious comfort. His parents and even the family priest try to force him into denial and, so to speak, back into the predictable blandness of their lives — as if nothing bad had really happened. David must be normal or be destroyed.

Rabe’s script has unmistakable echoes of Edward Albee’s work, blending realism and absurdity and using stereotypical characters for broader, harrowing social criticism. The play blasts the complacency and distance that allows people to ignore horrors of a war others are fighting. With an all-volunteer army today, Americans are even more removed than during Vietnam from the reality of deadly combat abroad.

David Rabe’s Vietnam play has shocking relevance today

The New Group production, under Scott Elliott’s insightful and incisive direction, recalls a bleak time in our history — and a particularly fearless and vibrant period of playwriting — even as it forces us to confront how nothing has changed. It may be human nature to keep horror at arm’s length, but that doesn’t make it right. Rabe shines a cold light on our selfishness and boldly dares us to look it in the face.

The brilliant set by Derek McLane evokes the split-level dream of the post-World War II/ Korean War world. The furniture is perfect; if you were around at the time, the afghan on the back of the Danish modern sofa will give you the shivers. The production is also aptly informed by Peter Kaczorowski’s perfect period lighting and Susan Hilferty’s costumes.

And then there are the performances. Bill Pullman plays Ozzie with a command that is breathtaking. His slow disintegration as he desperately tries to hold onto long-held beliefs in the face of contrary reality is brilliant. Ozzie is a sympathetic figure whose fear of the threat to all he has accomplished we can feel. Holly Hunter as Harriet turns in a powerful performance of accumulating anxiety and fear. Losing herself in food and vacuuming is horrifying and heartbreaking to watch.

Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald is unctuous and blinded by a faith Rabe takes particular aim at for being meaningless. Seemingly humble, the priest is, in fact, appallingly egocentric. Chamberlain does fine work in a small part.

Raviv Ullman is terrific as Rick, whose seeming shallowness masks a dark interior that is consistently chilling. The role is essentially a literary construct, but Ullman pulls it off.

But it is Ben Schnetzer as David who is at the center of everything. David’s story is the simplest and the least abstract. The stark realism of David’s portrayal set against the other characters is highly effective dramatically. In an important sense, he is the only real person in the piece, but damned if it doesn’t work. The clarity of Schnetzer’s characterization drives home both the human and intellectual themes of the play.

“Sticks and Bones” is a disquieting play, intentionally so. It’s not just the world of 43 years ago we’re looking it, it’s our world — and our own complacency should be unsettling. A small but searing moment in the play, when Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick watch fictional horror on TV as an escape, says it all, indicting a culture that still spends billions on fantasy entertainment while ignoring the realities of war and hiding behind shallow proclamations of patriotism. If this production upset you, good.

STICKS AND BONES | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Dec. 14: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $77-$97 at ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200 | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission