The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through June 2, $35-$55
The Signature Theatre’s long relationship with Sam Shepard, dating back to 1996, continues with a powerful production of his Obie-winning 1978 stunner, Curse of the Starving Class. The play, which shatters any illusions about the American dream, began a remarkably fruitful period for Shepard, followed by such works as Buried Child, True West, Savage/Love, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind over the next seven years. The Signature previously staged the play in 1997; the new adaptation is directed with a vengeance by Terry Kinney, the Steppenwolf cofounder who has directed Fool for Love and, who, incidentally, suffered a panic attack playing Tilden in Buried Child, which led to his six-year absence from acting in theater.
Kinney opens the show with an unforgettable moment involving Julian Crouch’s set, a large, open, rancid farmhouse kitchen in California where the supremely dysfunctional, self-destructive Tates are living a bizarre life. The father, Weston (David Warshofsky), is a drunk who broke down the door the night before in an alcoholic rage. His delusional wife, Ella (Maggie Siff), is so frightened of him that she has contacted a lawyer, Taylor (Andrew Rothenberg), in order to sell the house. Their young daughter, Emma (Lizzy DeClement), is desperate to run away. And her older brother, Wesley (Gilles Geary), is following in his father’s less-than-stellar footsteps. “This thing is no joke. Your whole life is changing. You don’t want to live in ignorance, do you? Squalor and ignorance,” Ella tells Emma. Emma is furious when she finds out that her mother and brother have sabotaged her 4-H project involving a chicken she had raised “from the incubator to the grave,” a stern metaphor for how the members of the family treat one another. The tension rises when Ellis (Esau Pritchett), the owner of the Alibi bar, arrives with some pretty compelling claims himself.
The Tates are like precursors to the Gallagher clan on the Showtime series Shameless, only without the sex and the comic relief. (The bar in Shameless is even named the Alibi.) There seems to be no way out from under the vicious cycle of alcoholism and violence that ensnares them, and they are doing everything they can to make sure to slam the door on any possible exit. Shepard includes numerous references to food throughout the play: Ella makes bacon early on, Emma is looking for her fryer, Wesley is constantly scouring the usually empty refrigerator, Weston inexplicably brings home a bag of artichokes, and a maggot-laden sheep is boarded in the kitchen.
“No one’s starving! We don’t belong to the starving class!” Emma screams. “There’s no such thing as a starving class,” her mother answers. “There is so! There’s a starving class of people, and we’re not part of it!” Emma responds, to which Ella replies, “We’re hungry, and that’s starving enough for me!” But what the Tates are hungry for is a question Shepard's play never explicitly answers.
The play is full of surprises, with a freshness that doesn’t feel the least bit stale, the unpredictability of the Tates front and center. Weston might drive a Kaiser-Frazer and a Packard, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the problems they all are facing. Curse of the Starving Class is a wickedly brutal tale, a classic Shepard tale of toxic masculinity, addiction, and the dashing of hope. The family is so explosive that Emma believes there is nitroglycerine running through their veins, flowing in their blood. She might be right.