Fall in New York is an exciting time. It feels like the best of what you remember about going back to school--so many thrilling new subjects to discover and things to learn, while outside the weather is crisp and the leaves are turning. Theater can be wild at any time of year, but in October many new plays have arrived, and are in previews, and there is tremendous energy and excitement in the air. This is a blog about a play, but it's also about friends. On Sunday I attended a preview of Sticks and Bones by David Rabe. It won the Tony award in 1972; my mentor Brendan Gill gave it a rave review in The New Yorker on March 11, 1972. This is the play's first production since then. Directed by Scott Elliott, it stars Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter, Richard Chamberlain, Ben Schnetzer, Raviv Ullman, Nadia Gan, and Morocco Omari.
The play tells the story of an American family in the aftermath of war, when their oldest son returns home from Vietnam. It did what great theater can do. It changed me. It ripped me apart and put me together differently. After it was over I saw friends in the lobby, but we couldn't speak. I think we babbled something, but speechlessness had taken hold. I know I wasn't in my body. I was floating somewhere above this earthly plane where genius art and poetry and existential sorrow exist, where I lived for the duration of the play and quite a long time afterwards.
The timing of my speechlessness was unfortunate, because I found myself in a room with friends both old and new. Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter first acted together in Crazy in Love, the first movie made from a novel of mine, and I got to know them while filming in and around Seattle. Their performances in Sticks and Bones are breathtaking.
Bill inhabits his character with such ferocity, such wrecking ball swings of hope, shame, love, hate, the dynamics of a particular moment in the life of a man trying to balance suburban fatherhood with his own met-and-unmet expectations of himself, I felt completely rattled, illuminated, reminded, destroyed, and turned inside out. It is a brilliant, shocking performance. Holly's character is so tender, vulnerable, grasping onto faith as every observable detail and every unseen nuance at home seems to shift and attack the life she's always counted on, and she nails it in her inimitable and savage Hunter way. Between the two of them, we have a fever dream of an acting duo that will raise your temperature and make you delirious on your way to a greater truth.
Beth Henley--with whom I was fortunate enough to work on Motherhood Out Loud (both Holly and Bill have acted in several of Beth's plays, Bill most recently getting a Drama Desk nomination for his portrayal of Fred in The Jacksonian) and Carol Kane, had come to the play, and I met up with them afterwards. And then Bill, Holly, the rest of the cast, director Scott Elliott, and David Rabe came out to join us, and I could barely speak because I was still living in the world of the play, the emotions it had brought forth, and the seriously intense physical sensations of a wild ride.
In my post-play near-hallucinogenic state, I did greatly enjoy meeting Ben Schnetzer and Raviv Ullman. Ben's character David is compelling, tragic, and full of secrets and all that is wrenching about war. Raviv's character Rick seems to be holding the family together, until we realize he is every bit as affected as his parents and brother; his guitar playing provides a mystically tranquil and deceptively reassuring backdrop to one of the play's most devastating scenes.
In Sticks and Bones, David Rabe writes deeply of a time and family, a way of being that felt so familiar to me, having grown up during Vietnam. The play caught so many details with such specific and almost magnified realism, yet managed to transcend everything actual--everything "real"--and somehow make it truer than true, realer than real.
I hope you all will see Sticks and Bones--if you're coming to New York and have time to see just one play this season, I encourage you to make sure this is the one. It will shake you up and make you think and then make you stop thinking in the most thrilling of ways.
In a fun and somewhat surreal aside, earlier this fall I took a bus ride from Port Authority to Montclair NJ, with Bill, Holly, David, and Rachel, to see Bill's lovely and talented wife Tamara dance in Liz Lerman's gorgeous Healing Wars which, like Sticks and Bones, is about the trauma and effects of war. There we all were, on the bus, with the crazy lights of the Lincoln Tunnel flashing through the bus windows, and then that heartbreaking view of the New York skyline, and then in the distance a crescent moon balanced over the Pulaski Skyway (which has always reminded me of a crouching panther) as we drove through the swamps of Jersey, on the way to see a great performance. Life can be full of strange and wonderful gifts and surprises.