The new Off-Broadway revival by The New Group would be worth seeing purely for Ed Harris’s vinegary central performance. Dodge is the sick, beaten-down, alcoholic paterfamilias of a family so broken by years of denial that they don’t even admit to recognizing returning grandson Vince (Nat Wolff). But well before Shepard kicks the absurdity up that particular notch, the mists of his American magic realism have gathered.
The atmosphere begins with Derek McLane’s sad Midwestern living-room set, which includes Dodge himself, almost visibly disintegrating on the old couch in front of the TV. On stage the entire time, Dodge sprawls and coughs, sneaking swallows of whiskey and snapping at his lively, voluble wife Halie (Madigan) and their off-in-the-head son Tilden (a softly effective Paul Sparks).
Madigan has the opposite challenge, playing almost the entire opening scene – her longest – from offstage. When Halie finally appears, her smart outfit clashes sharply with Dodge’s rundown duds and low energy just as her annoying spunkiness and showy religiosity contrast with his resigned curmudgeonliness.
Sparks is flatly powerful as Tilden, whose loss of sanity manifests as crops of corn and carrots from “out back” where, Dodge and Halie agree, nothing – nothing wholesome, anyway – has been planted for decades. Somehow Tilden brought dark magic to the house – or revived it – when he returned to his parents after many years in another state, where he got in trouble and lost his mind. Similarly, his brother Bradley (Rich Sommer, harshly effective in a relatively small role) has lost his leg in a literalization of the family’s fracturing.
By contrast, the newest generation just can’t find its place in this old world. Neither Dodge, his grandfather, nor Tilden, his father, recognize (or admit to recognizing) young Vince. They’re much more willing to welcome to Vince’s pretty girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga of American Horror Story in a promising stage debut), the true stranger. Father Dewis (Larry Pine), Halie’s friend and presumably paramour, can get no purchase whatsoever in the rot of the house; a supposed moral guide, the clergyman is as useless here as Vince’s saxophone, which sits mutely on the floor in its case with no function except to assure Sherry that Vince will eventually be back from a liquor-store run that has turned into an all-nighter.
As summoned and delivered by Harris, Dodge’s clarification of the dark family secret is so wrenching that Vince’s big speech at the end, about his vision of the fateful continuity of the generations, doesn’t have quite the punch Shepard must have intended. Blame Harris for this: it’s hard to imagine anyone following him effectively. Fortunately, Elliott marshals the ensemble squarely around Harris’s magnetic performance, drawing a fully dimensional picture that both mystifies and satisfies.
The New Group’s Buried Child runs through March 27 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42 St.