When Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” premiered in 1977, it marked the beginning of a remarkable and groundbreaking string of family dramas by the playwright that would include “Buried Child,” “True West” and “Fool for Love.” All are better known than “Curse of the Starving Class”; the current revival at Weehawken’s Hudson Theatre Works suggests why that is.
“Curse of the Starving Class” marked a transition between Shepard’s early absurdism and the hyper-realism of his later plays, but those two ideas often clash uncomfortably here. This story of a down-and-out family barely getting by seems remarkably prescient today, with its forecast of the American middle class being eaten alive by the rich. Characters rant about a “zombie economy” with “invisible money” changing hands in ways they can’t even imagine, let along compete with. Sadly, despite some strong ideas, the two-hour production fails on several fronts.
The play rumbles and bangs and hollers and screams from the get-go, much of the dialogue written in UPPER CASE (as is often the case in a Shepard play). An empty refrigerator looms large as a symbol of the family’s near-poverty — they’re not starving, there’s just nothing to eat — as do a demolished door, a sack of artichokes, a maggot-ridden sheep and a fatal car bomb. One minute, someone is delivering a monologue of uncommon insight and poetry about the American condition; the next, there is outrageous shtick that would embarrass The Three Stooges.
Hudson Theatre Works artistic director Frank Licato gamely brings this troublesome play to life on a tiny budget and restrictive community standards. Three acts have been shaved into two, the live sheep used in most productions has been replaced by a stuffed doll, and the play’s infamous nude scene has been bowdlerized with tighty-whities. The set design by Gregory Erbach effectively renders the family’s ramshackle farmhouse with a few simple props and a background projection.
The two leads — Kevin Cristaldi as the family’s drunken patriarch Weston and Quinn Cassavale as his long-suffering wife Ella — do outstanding work, and the adult Augusta McMahon does an excellent job playing the family’s pubescent daughter Emma.
Tony Knotts is a fine actor — he was outstanding as Eben in Hudson Theatre Works’ recent production of “Desire Under the Elms” — but he has been cast as the family’s teenage son Wesley, and 18 years old he is not (especially with his salt-and-pepper hair and heavy 5 o’clock shadow). I can’t fault his performance, but casting can be a problem with this company (it hurt the production of “Bunnies,” too); be prepared to believe that 45-year-old Ella has a 35-year-old son.
The play begins with Ella, in a bathrobe, puttering around the kitchen making breakfast. The night before, Weston had come home in an alcoholic range and smashed in the front door. Once a successful sheep farmer and avocado grower, Weston has abandoned his farm and family for long drunken sojourns, returning only to sleep them off and then disappear again. Ella, talking to herself, opens and closes the refrigerator repeatedly, always finding it empty, as Wesley arrives to fumble with broken shards of wood, the remnants of the door.
Ella, we learn, dreams of a better life in Paris, and plots to secretly sell the farm and its land to a shady lawyer. Wesley wants no part of it; the farm, as meager as it is, is his home and he wants no other, even if he is forced to do all the chores himself. Emma, for her part, lives on dreams; only 13 and experiencing her first period, she yearns to run away to become a garage mechanic, or a novelist, or a criminal. “I’m going into crime,” she breezily tells her family. “It’s the only thing that pays these days.”
Weston, it turns out, has plans of his own. He’s deeply in debt to some shady characters and plans to sell the house and land to the owner of the local dive bar. Taylor (Marc Tanis), Ella’s lawyer with a slick brown suit and briefcase full of papers, tries his best to woo her into signing away her home, even if he is the same person who cheated Weston out of $500 for some worthless piece of desert years ago. Ellis (Michael Giorgio), the bar owner, is an even more outré character, dressed in a flaming-red silk shirt and with a clichéd accent out of “The Godfather.”
While there is an earthy, Steinbeckian quality to the first half of the play, the second half flies off the rails; the performances grow broader, the action escalates to a frenzy. Ella runs off with the family horse and firearm and is arrested for shooting up Ellis’ saloon on horseback. Wesley slaughters the family sheep. Gangsters blow up the family car.
Nothing ends happily. Ella’s and Weston’s plans come to naught, both of them wondering, in their own way, why good things never seem to happen to people like them; wondering, in fact, if there is a curse.
This production of “Curse of the Starving Class” asks some good questions but provides no answers. For a play that has been described as “biting satire” and “dark comedy,” there are precious few laughs and ultimately, no one and nothing to cheer for.
“Curse of the Starving Class” runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through May 22 at The Wilson School in Weehawken. Visit hudsontheatreworks.org.
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