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'Sticks and Bones' review: Second in David Rabe's searing Vietnam trilogy

Bill Pullman, Ben Schnetzer and Nadia Gan in

Bill Pullman, Ben Schnetzer and Nadia Gan in The New Group production of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones, directed by Scott Elliott, at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street) through December 14. Credit: Monique Carboni

The impact of Vietnam on an all-American family may not seem like an explosive topic today. But it was in 1972, when David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones" won the Tony Award and it was when a television adaptation caused a censorship upheaval between producer Joe Papp and CBS.

Wartime disillusionment and rough talk are hardly headlines anymore. But the rarely revived drama -- the second in Rabe's groundbreaking Vietnam trilogy -- remains an unnerving powerhouse of individual shock therapy and big-picture insight.

At least it does in Scott Elliott's painful, exquisitely cast production, which has Bill Pullman as the father known as Ozzie, Holly Hunter as his Harriet and Ben Schnetzer as son David, who returns from the war deeply disturbed and blind.

Rather than reaching for the easy cartoons of the sitcom setting, The New Group kicks off its 20th anniversary in high-voltage absurd style and a gravity that, for all the gruesomeness, forges a surprising bond with the American-dream smashing of "Death of a Salesman."

Like Arthur Miller, Rabe doesn't hesitate to hammer his ideas into submission with repetition or dare poetry and melodrama to the edges of psychological realism. Here we are in a fairly prosperous trilevel family home, designed with '70s authenticity and no cliche by Derek McLane. Ozzie and Harriet are entertaining their priest (played with chiseled presence but not total security by Richard Chamberlain), when they get a call that David will be dropped off by truck and require a signed shipping receipt.

Pullman is heartbreaking and hateful as Ozzie, a kind of clueless modern Willy Loman, a figure of such self-loathing and grandiosity that we imagine an animal simultaneously bracing for a beating and preparing to bite. Hunter is equally superb as the woman pinched from the strain of being coquettish and keeping everyone happy.

Schnetzer creates a haunting picture of shattered manly ideals, only turning human when the ghost of his Vietnamese lover (Nadia Gan) floats silently into his view. And Raviv Ullman is perfectly smug and oblivious as brother Rick, who plays guitar.

The family's racism is as ugly as the atrocities David experienced. Internal monologues feel as violent as the catastrophes onstage. Ozzie cries out, "I can no longer compel recognition." This play, however, does.

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