What Breaks Our Bones
By Jonathan Kalb
Sticks and Bones
By David Rabe
The New Group at
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St.
Sticks and Bones is the strangest and trickiest play in David Rabe’s celebrated Vietnam trilogy. For all the improbably long monologues in Streamers and the wacky dream sequences in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, the audience basically knows where we are in those plays: the American military, whose brutal and soul-mangling routines for maintaining order and discipline are submitted, sometimes satirically, for our judgment. Sticks and Bones is something else—a returning soldier play (written in 1969) that never leaves the iconic, middle-American family home of the blinded veteran at its center but nevertheless suspends its domestic reality in a decidedly ambiguous time-space.
Substantial sections of Sticks and Bones come off as mordant satire, with the parents, Ozzie and Harriet, named after the original insipid 1950s sitcom and blind David screaming “it all feels wrong” and “I don’t know these people” as soon as he gets back. The parents and David’s younger brother Rick speak in bromides and platitudes, filling their lives with TV, junk food, pop music and sports. They answer traumatized David with banal slogans about optimism, pluck and lightening up whenever he tries to get real about what he saw in Vietnam. These sections of the action are biting and hilarious. They could almost have come from Christopher Durang, with his daggers of cackling hilarity aimed at the guts of every hypocrite who ever wronged him.
Other sections of the play, however, are thoroughly introspective and unsatirical. It’s not just David’s efforts to explain the savagery he witnessed as a soldier, or his longing for the Vietnamese girl Zung he left behind (who joins him in the house, silent, mostly unseen by others, possibly a hallucination). Ozzie also has scattered monologues exploring his pent-up anger, dating back to his hardscrabble youth in the Depression, and at one point he almost seems to snap out of his bubble of self-absorption long enough to make real contact with David. And at Harriet’s bidding, the parish priest Father Donald, whom we had good reason to think idiotic (from an earlier scene), visits David and has a surprisingly frank and sincere discussion with him about despair.
The tone of the action, in other words, can never be pinned down. Rabe keeps us guessing for nearly 3 hours about where the ground is beneath his characters’ feet. And the highest compliment I can pay to Scott Elliott’s splendid revival of Sticks and Bones is that it rides this tonal knife-edge brilliantly and confidently.
The success of the satire is largely due to Holly Hunter as Harriet, Bill Pullman as Ozzie, and Raviv Ullman as the happy-go-lucky yet robotically snake-like Rick. Hunter’s performance in particular is a tour de force. She is positively bird-like in her manic flitting, cheerfully and breathlessly puttering, straightening, vacuuming, wiping, dusting, coddling, fussing, and asking who wants coffee, milk and fudge. I nearly fell off my seat when, having vomited in reaction to David’s interracial affair, she suddenly brightened up at the thought of something undone in the kitchen and did a little balletic jeté before dashing off. The power of the serious family drama is due to Pullman, who deftly pulls off at least a dozen dauntingly sudden mood shifts, and Ben Schnetzer as David, who somehow figures out how to belong to this emotionally cut-off family and seem utterly lost in it at the same time.
Because America today is no less obsessed with consumerist navel-gazing and in denial about PTSD and other consequences of its foreign wars than it was in 1969, most of this extraordinary drama still has power to claw. It’s true that a few parts haven’t dated so well. Ghostly Zung wandering silently about the house is hopelessly trite, for instance, and the role of Father Donald ends up seeming flimsy since Rabe gives him nothing substantial to say about God. Still, given when Sticks and Bones was written, it’s remarkable how prescient it was. No topical post-9/11 coming-home play I’m aware of is more amusing, penetrating or fruitfully confrontational.