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Curse of the Starving Class

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 13, 2019

David Warshofsky and Gilles Geary
Photo by Joan Marcus

Perhaps no other household item better represents capitalism, consumption, and economic status than the refrigerator. It is no wonder, then, that the iconic appliance is a central image in Curse of the Starving Class, Sam Shepard's play that first appeared in New York in 1978 and is now receiving a full-throated revival at the Signature Theatre. Shepard's play takes on issues of class exploitation, sterile urbanization, and manhood subjugation. Amidst the disintegration of the American dream and the dissolution of the idealized cohesive family, the play's mighty fridge reigns supreme.

As the lights come up on the spacious but dilapidated kitchen of the Tate family's California home, one may be impressed with the scenic authenticity and attention to detail. The pots and pans hanging from the shelves, peeling wallpaper, and filthy cabinets appear instantly recognizable to theatregoers expecting a naturalistic play about the underclass. Indeed, the setting, meticulously designed by Julian Crouch, appears to indicate the milieu for a reassuringly familiar kitchen-sink drama that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Suddenly and forcibly overturning expectations, the play rattles to life with a spectacular effect, which will not be divulged here, and instantly the scenic design reflects the fractured and elegiac world of Shepard's dystopian view of a family and country riven by anger and distrust.

The members of the Tate family are each cursed with a ravenous desire to transcend their emotional and financial destitution. Ella (Maggie Siff), the mother, intends to covertly sell the family home and move to Europe. As she tells her brooding son Wesley (Gilles Geary), "They have history in Europe. They know where they come from." Wesley, on the other hand, longs for a romanticized version of America, and he believes fixing and repairing the family homestead will make everything right.

Maggie Siff
Photo by Joan Marcus

The drunken patriarch of the family, Weston (David Warshofsky), has — unbeknownst to the family — already sold the house in order to get out of massive debt, which he had taken on as if it were his patriotic duty. Spitfire Emma (Lizzy DeClement) is the daughter, containing the vestiges of untrammeled goodness, dreams of becoming a benevolent auto mechanic in Mexico. As she says, "I like the idea of people breaking down and I'm the only one who can help them get on the road again. It would be like being a magician. Just open up the hood and cast your magic spell." Of course, the family is doomed from the start as they carry the curses of their class, their ancestors, and their fruitlessly dogged pursuit of bettering themselves.

Terry Kinney has a long history as both an actor in and director of Shepard plays, and his direction of the current revival finds the right balance among the violence, dark humor, pathos, and poetry. Siff, who seems to be channeling Holly Hunter, and Warshofsky, especially at his most grizzled state resembles Shepard, are a volatile pair. They are nonchalantly cruel and manipulative. In the last act, though, there are moments of tenderness, and through their performances one sees what the characters' marriage might have been like before life had degraded them to the starving class.

As the brother and sister, Geary and DeClement effectively convey the casual brutality and the quotidian consequences of a soul-crushing familial experience. In smaller roles, Andrew Rothenberg as Taylor, the slimy lawyer/ speculator, and Esau Pritchett as Ellis, the menacing bar owner hellbent on collecting what is owed him, are perfect foils for the ill-fated Tate family.

Natasha Katz's atmospheric lighting captures the starkness of rural California. Sarah Holden's costumes wittily point to the characters' attempts to achieve their aspirations merely by dressing the part.

Earlier this season Roundabout presented True West, the third play in what has been called Shepard's Family Trilogy (the second being Buried Child). As with the other plays in the trilogy, Curse of the Starving Class shows that the dissolution of the American dream is not just a national tragedy but a domestic one as well.

Curse of the Starving Class
Through June 2
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: