This may say something scary about us. But Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” doesn’t feel as upsetting or as comically monstrous as it once did. Long before the words “dysfunctional family” had been stomped into the cliché of every daily talk show, Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer-winning family exorcism had been mucking around in the primal connections of our most gnarled family trees with grand absurdity and horror.
Despite the insightful, ever-challenging presence of Ed Harris and Amy Madigan as the bedridden drunken Dodge and his pious, hypocritical wife, Halie, however, director Scott Elliott’s much-anticipated revival at his New Group has a matter-of-factness that undercuts both the mythic and Gothic delights of the dark tragicomedy.
Elliott, a knowing and daring director, may well be pushing to make this bizarrely broken Midwest family seem more normal and relatable — less “Tobacco Road” and more like just the filthy farmers down the road.
Sure, Shepard’s language is the ordinary lush stuff of family stories — nagging jealousies, real and imagined crimes. But the intentions are deeply mysterious, even hallucinatory, with a secret baby long buried in the yard, probable incest, a son named Bradley (Rich Sommer), who chopped off his own leg with a buzz saw, and a slow-witted one named Tilden (Paul Sparks), who keeps bringing in armfuls of vegetables from a long-barren yard.
Then there is the arrival of Vince (Nat Wolff), the grandson who hasn’t been home for six years and whom nobody seems to know. Is he real or a fantasized version of what that baby might have become? And what about his girlfriend (Taissa Farmiga), who fits into the family with a creepy, sensual ease not seen since Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming”? Then there is this lecherous preacher (the perfectly unctuous and befuddled Larry Pine), who realizes when it’s time for him to leave.
All this is there, of course, but less gleefully brazen than in the 1978 original (with a legendarily creepy Tom Noonan as Tilden) or the 1996 Broadway revival directed by Gary Sinise. Still, we have Harris, with his impeccable timing and his chiseled dimples, as the supposed head of the family, and Madigan’s Halie, so overbearing that her voice booms from the upstairs of the house (designed by Derek McLane) as if her lifetime of disappointments were ingrained in the hopelessly filthy walls.
Shepard says he wanted the play “to destroy the idea of the American family drama.” “Buried Child” still has the power to do that, but it needs a sharper, heavier mallet than it gets here.