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A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephen Ray and Brid Brennan
Photo by Matthew Murphy

When it comes to change, homo sapiens is frequently the species in which it's seen last—if ever. Stories of jealousy, rage, commitment gone awry, and family implosions are foremost among those that have survived the last several millennia, long after creations of more current import have figuratively and literally turned to dust. Sam Shepard, a playwright whose works frequently explore the idea that the best way to understand the present is to examine the past, dives back about as far as one can go—2,500 years—for his play A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Sure, the places, faces, and names might shift around a bit, but ultimately we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. If Shepard tells that story well enough here, he does not tell it subtly, twisting up the Oedipus narrative we know with a present-day rethink that doesn't echo the original so much as copy it, except in a few details of interpretation. The Oedipus of then is the Otto of now (both are played by Stephen Rea), who only slowly discovers that wife Jocasta/Jocelyn (Brid Brennan) is not who he thought and that the disappearance of her first husband, Laius/Lawrence (Aidan Redmond), has more terrifying implications for all of them than he ever could have imagined.

Any further description of the plot really is beside the point, isn't it? We could delve as much as we like into the prophecies (the Tiresias figure is played by a suitably creepy Lloyd Hutchinson), the tangles, and the aftermath, which is appropriately bloody and breathtaking by turns. But Shepard's contention is that the hubris at the heart of the tale is so baked into our human identity that we don't need it recounted, even if we may have forgotten the particulars. (Two characters, a forensic scientist named R.J. Randolph who's played by Matthew Rauch and a police officer played by Jason Kolotouros, are on hand to learn this for themselves, so we don't have to.)

For most of the play, this is enough. Not to create a riveting evening, mind you—A Particle of Dread, for its virtues, is rarely that—but to create an intriguing one that inspires us to rethink our own attitudes and prejudices about the world and how we interact with it. The contemporary retelling Shepard has woven in involves the death of "notorious Las Vegas casino mobster and drug lord" Angel Langos in the Mojave Desert, which gives some characters pause as to the nature of the killers. When this production premiered at Northern Ireland's Field Day Theatre Company last year, this idea resonated there in a certain way; given our own immigration discussions in the U.S. now, it will strike us differently still.

Nativist sentiments, of a sort, are central to the Oedipus legend, so this isn't a stretch, and it's more a shadow of meaning than an overriding theme. But it does represent an acknowledgment that we must always absorb ancient lessons anew and find fresh ways to apply them to our lives—otherwise, well, there will always be another Oedipus, another Jocasta, another Antigone (yes, she's here, too, played by Judith Roddy).

This is powerful enough an innovation that you wish there were more of them. But Otto and Jocelyn puzzle out their predicaments in strictly linear fashion, interrupted occasionally by interior monologues from other crucial figures, then and now, that add flavor to our understanding of what's happening but don't deepen it. Many of these are rewritings of Sophocles's key speeches, or at least serve similar enough functions that you seldom get the impression you're getting anything new.

If not for Shepard's other tension-packing device, of intricately disrupting the timeline so that, at certain moments, you're not sure who's involved in the event you're watching or when exactly it's happening, there would be no notable deviations from the source at all. This doesn't exactly kill the evening, but it also doesn't help it—you're going to take away very little, if anything, from A Particle of Dread that you wouldn't from a solid version of Oedipus Rex.

The actors are not to fault here. Rea struggles feverishly to bring epic size to Oedipus (at which he unquestionably succeeds) and Otto (where the balance is slightly off-kilter), while still letting us see the frightened monster inside the man. Redmond's kingpin is thoroughly haughty but also sympathetic; it's clear both why he dies and why he deserves to live. Brennan brings a lush, regal bearing to Jocasta that doesn't quite translate when she takes on Jocelyn—a bit more differentiation between the women would not be a bad thing (for reasons it would be vaguely spoiler-baiting to get into). In their smaller roles, Kolotouros, Rauch, and Roddy, the last who also plays a mysterious woman named Annalee with a devastating secret, do admirably well.

For her part, director Nancy Meckler has kept the pacing sharp and the actors focused, though she's not able to conjure surprise when Shepard doesn't give her enough cues to do so. Nor has she made convincing use of Frank Conway's portentous but head-scratching abattoir set (eerily lit by Michael Chybowski), or the live musicians (Neil Martin and Todd Livingston) who oversell the spooky factor through Martin's banshee-noir compositions. Too often, the production seems to be trying to say too much, in too many different ways.

The script suffers from the opposite problem; Shepard's message would come through more distinctly, and more powerfully, if we could see how it's evolved across the last few thousand years. Resetting the action in the America of today only takes him so far, and the play feels as though it wants to go further than he allows it. Still, the saga retains more than a little oomph as it highlights that, despite the countless other ways we're different from our ancestors, under the skin—for better and, more likely, for worse—we're exactly the same we've always been.

A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
Through January 4
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: