The goose and rabbit who have been delighting audiences on Broadway in The Ferryman now have some competition in the nonhuman actor category: the sheep who graces the stage for much of Signature Theater’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. It’s clear from the startling outset, when the walls of the dilapidated kitchen crack and break apart, that things aren’t going to end well for human and nonhuman alike. And the play implies that the divide between human and animal isn’t as stark as we would like to imagine—life in Shepard’s America is a brute struggle for survival that pits everyone against each other, including family members, and ends in mutual destruction, like the eagle-and-cat parable that concludes the play.
But that lamb sure is cute, and the audience enjoys cooing at every move it makes. And that becomes indicative of a generally sturdy production that opts for some overly broad humor, diminishing the impact of the play’s turn to violent, grotesque tragedy. What should feel like a punch in the gut is more like a tap. There is comedy in the play, to be sure: the New York Times review of the original U.S. production, at the Public Theater in 1978, noted that “a violent humor predominates, slipping into plain violence.” The humor on display under Terry Kinney’s direction in the Irene Diamond Stage is more in the vein of a particularly zany sitcom.
The play takes place in California’s Central Valley, in the decaying and chaotic Tate household. Ella (Maggie Siff) barely objects when her son Wesley (Gilles Geary) urinates on his sister Emma’s (Lizzy Declement) 4-H diagrams on the kitchen floor. She’s trapped in a marriage to the self-destructive, unhinged, alcoholic Weston (David Warshofsky), who is the reason there is no door to the house: he kicked it down in a drunken fit, which surprises exactly no one.
One thing the characters have in common is their fixation on the (usually empty) refrigerator. The play is all about hunger—a literal, voracious, animal hunger, and a metaphorical kind. Though they often deny their membership in the starving class, the Tates yearn for food but just as often feed themselves on pipe dreams worthy of Eugene O’Neill characters.
Ella plots to sell the house and the land and abscond to Europe (“They have everything in Europe”); she cozies up to a shady lawyer/speculator (Andrew Rothenberg), who, it turns out, is the very con man who sold Weston a worthless acre and a half of godforsaken desert land. Weston dreams of selling the house himself and escaping his creditors by disappearing into Mexico. Emma also dreams of getting lost in Mexico—“Just like that guy. He had initials for a name”—and freelancing as an auto mechanic. Wesley is the Tate who seems most resigned to his fate, inheriting the “poison” that courses through his father’s veins, but even he dreams of the “frontier” and running off to Alaska.
The degradation of the Tates’ existence is emphasized by the aforementioned torn-apart kitchen—it is unfixable, and the layers of grime look unwashable (the scenic design is by Julian Crouch). Even when Weston cleans up and manically reforms himself in Act II, or when Ella emerges in makeup and a dress to look her best for the lawyer, it feels like a futile attempt to cover a rot that runs too deep to escape. The reason the adorable lamb is brought into the house in the first place is that it is infested with maggots.
There’s nothing subtle in Shepard’s symbolism in this play, or its critique of American consumerism, the American ethos of individualism, and so on. In this production, especially during the various expressionistic monologues (aided by Natasha Katz’s excellent lighting design), one is too much aware of watching a play that is dealing with a set of themes. This also reduces the ending’s emotional impact, when the family is destroyed by violent debt-collectors (here looking like characters from a Tarantino film) and Wesley dons his father’s clothes and gorges out of the refrigerator like an unthinking, ravenous beast. We see the mess and the tragedy, but we don’t quite feel it.
Curse of the Starving Class runs through June 2 at the Irene Diamond Stage at Signature Theatre (480 West 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets are available by calling (212) 244-7529 or visiting signaturetheatre.org.