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A CurtainUp Review
Curse of the Starving Clas

You can't believe people when they look you in the eyes. You gotta' look behind them. See what they're standing in front of. What they're hiding. Everyone's hiding, Wes. Everybody. Nobody look like what they are.— Emma
Curse of the Starving Clas
(left to right) David Warshofsky and Gilles Geary(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, now in a flawed revival at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, is a production that should nonetheless be seen. Directed by Terry Kinney it is the first salvo in Shepard's unforgettable family trilogy and explores the spiritual death of an American family.

Set in Southern California, the play revolves around warring parents trying to sell the family home out from under each other. The son and daughter are caught in the domestic maelstrom, bound by blood and haunted by a so-called family curse.

This production is not for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached. For sheer nerve-rattling, one can't outdo the violent opening scene. Kinney has invented a surreal flashback to when dad smashed down the door to his home in a drunken rage the night before the play begins.

Whereas nothing quite matches this over-the-top scene, plenty of other rowdy events in Act 1 boggle the mind and push the boundaries of dramaturgy.

Here's just a sampling: teenage daughter Emma (Lizzy DeClement) almost goes berserk when she learns her mom Ella Tate (Maggie Siff) has boiled her chicken, an animal that Emma had hand-fed from hatched chick to mature bird, to present at a 4-H exhibition; the slightly older son Wesley (Gilles Geary) urinates on sister Emma's chicken dissection poster and leaves; Wesley later discovers a sick sheep outdoors and keeps it warm in a makeshift pen in the kitchen.

Act 2 offers even more grisly and grotesque fare which I won't detail here. But it just might make vegans out of some meat-eaters in the audience.

Okay, Shepard is well-known visceral dramas that blur the line between realism and fantasy. The New York Times dubbed the young Shepard "the generally acknowledged genius" of the off-off-Broadway circuit. And, as the young playwright matured he would become a polymathic artist who would continue to write, act on stage and screen (He received an Oscar nomination for his turn as Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film The Right Stuff), direct, produce, and even try his hand as a rock and roll musician (his band's music would be featured in the 1969 film Easy Rider). But Shepard always returned to the theater and would win the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, written the same year as Curse.

A production of Curse often succeeds or fails, depending on the casting of Weston and Wesley. Written by Shepard as mirror-image parts, this father-son dyad also embodies his mingling of identities theme. Happily, David Warshofsky and Gilles Geary, as Weston and Wesley. do well by these roles. Warshofsky conveys the Jekyl-Hyde duality of Weston and Geary displays the same violent and excessive impulses in his Wesley.

Indeed, one of the most profound moments in the play is when Geary's Wesley describes how he senses he is becoming his prodigal father: "I started putting all his clothes on. ... And every time I put one thing on it seemed like a part of him was growing on me. I could feel him taking over me....I could feel myself retreating. I could feel him coming in and me going out. Just like the change of the guards."

The rest of the ensemble acquit themselves well. Andrew Rothenberg plays the lawyer Taylor with the requisite slickness. Esau Pritchett inhabits Ellis with more than enough arrogance as the night club owner.

The two women in the play, Maggie Siff and Lizzy DeClement, nail their parts as the victimized mom Ella and short-fused Emma respectively. Siff's Ella dreams of starting a new life in Europe with her children. And DeClement's Emma hopes to escape her family life altogether by learning to be a mechanic or criminal. Yes, the latter ambition is a disturbing game plan for a teen. But then this is a Shepard play in which characters sometimes live on the edge of despair.

On a lighter note, I must applaud the adorable unnamed sheep whose cameo appearance upstages the human actors, all with a flick of its fleecy tail and meek glances around the performing space.

On the technical side, Julian Crouch's intentionally ramshackle set is eye-catching from the get-go. Sarah J. Holden's costumes, which go from the chic to shoddy, are convincing. Natasha Katz's lighting is at its best when it is spotlighting the totemic refrigerator. Whether it's empty, filled with artichokes, or hefty portions of meat and produce, it carries universal symbolism and a touch of humor.

Curse is the second major New York production of a Shepard drama in 2019. Earlier this year the Roundabout Theatre Company staged True West at the American Airlines Theatre, starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano.(review). Those theatergoers lucky enough to catch both stagings will see how these family plays ricochet off one another. Bothfocus on the anxieties within the American family, including the persistence of heredity and how urban sprawl can negatively impact on a family's well-being. The latter environmental issue resonates with our ongoing concern over pollution and global warming today.

The big drawback to the current staging of Curse is that it pulls out the theatrical stops too early with its flashback scene in the opener. True, it signals to the audience the doomed trajectory of the play. But no subsequent scene comes near to matching its frisson. And shouldn't every production save a little dramatic oomph for the finale?

Unfortunately, Kinney forgot that Shepard's sine qua non as a playwright is his dialogue. Instead of grafting on his own pyrotechnics, Kinney should have trusted more in Shepard's language and the whole moving spirit of the play.

In spite of this directorial oversight, however, this is a rare opportunity to see a live performance of Curse with an acting ensemble that Shepard would approve. It might not fire on all cylinders. But it sure does allow one to get a real taste of the late author's genius.

For more about Sam Shepard and links to other of his work reviewed, see the shepard chapter of Curtainup's Authors' Album.

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Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard
Directed by Terry Kinney
Cast: Lizzy DeClement (Emma), Flora Diaz (Sergeant Malcolm), Gilles Geary (Wesley), Esau Pritchett (Ella), David Warshofsky (Weston).
Sets: Julian Crouch
Costumes: Sarah J. Holden
Sound Design & Original Music: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Stage Manager: Robert Bennett
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center at 480 W. 42nd Street. Tickets: $35. Phone 212-244-7529 or online at
From 4/23/19; opening 5/13/19; closing 5/26/19.
Tuesday through Friday @ 7:30pm; Saturday @ 8pm; Saturday & Sunday matinees @ 2pm. Sunday evening performances @ 7:30pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 20 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/9/19

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