"Curse of the Starving Class"

--Irene Backalenick

The dysfunctional family is standard material for most of today’s American dramas. Playwrights seem to focus on the modern family as defined by a cluster of mentally-ill, tortured, acting-out characters.

 

But playwright Sam Shepard takes it to new heights in “Curse of the Starving Class,” now on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre.

 

Here are Mom and Dad, son Wesley and daughter Emma duking it out, each character less likeable than the previous one. There is not an iota of caring and nurturing among the four. And thus it is difficult for audiences to respond to this family. Who cares whether they live or die?

 

Yet Shepard offers a sharp, despairing and often funny portrayal of rural family life in the far west (a setting to which he is always drawn). The play opens after the drunken father has bashed in the locked door, to gain a late-night entry to his home. It is morning, and the mother is already plotting her escape, planning to sell the ancestral manor and flee to Paris (possibly with the con man who promised to buy the family estate). The grown son and pubescent daughter have their own agendas. She has a fantasy life of escape, while he hopes to hold on to the land. It is the son’s vision which signifies that we are in Shepard territory, with its particular emphasis on land ownership.

 

As directed by Gordon Edelstein (Long Wharf’s artistic director), the play offers shock after shock. From the moment son Wesley unzippers his pants and urinates on his sister’s art work (her school project) to the final car explosion (off-stage), the audience is jolted into attention. Moreover, Edelstein oversees an ensemble of fine performances, particularly that of Kevin Tighe as the brawling father. Peter Albrink and Elvy Yost come through convincingly as the children, as does Clark Middleton in a brief, menacing appearance. But Judith Ivey (arguably the show’s star) turns in a strangely flat performance, letting Mom come across as limited and two-dimensional.

 

But perhaps the Ivey performance says it best. Much as “Curse of the Starving Class” could be the statement for our times, much as it is often sharp and funny, it never makes the emotional impact for which we hoped.

 

This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com

 

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