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'The Mound Builders' review: Wise Wilson

The cast is pictured during a dress rehearsal

The cast is pictured during a dress rehearsal of " The Mound Builders" by Lanford Wilson, directed by Jo Bonney, at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in New York. (Feb. 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Richard Termine

'The Mound Builders" always was one of Lanford Wilson's Big Question plays -- easier to admire, perhaps, than to embrace. The drama, set on an archaeological dig in southern Illinois, ran less than a month in 1975 and was revived briefly in a more melodramatic, less metaphysical, no-more-popular version in 1986.

Like the characters uncovering mysterious layers of forgotten cultures, the revival at the Signature Theatre digs passionately for signs of what we've been missing after the loss of Wilson, the prolific, vibrant playwright, who mysteriously stopped writing long before he died in 2011 at 73.

The play, directed with enormous humanity and intelligence by Jo Bonney, still doesn't pull together the many exquisitely considered threads -- philosophical, economic, personal -- that clash in the struggle between modern materialism and antiquity. But the seven-actor cast captures Wilson's deceptively easygoing lyrical naturalism, the way he constructed ensembles that made every character feel individual and inevitable.

The story is told in flashback by the head archaeologist (David Conrad) as he reviews slides from the previous summer. A loose collection of families and colleagues gather in the ramshackle house talking idealistically about legacy while a local (Will Rogers) plans the fortune he will make developing the land. When the group finds artifacts in the mounds, they marvel on the "palpable evidence" of people who lived and disappeared. This play, one of two in New York's informal Wilson festival this spring, makes Wilson palpable, too.

WHAT "The Mound Builders"

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $25; 212-244-7529;

BOTTOM LINE stirring revival of problematic play

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