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The Mound Builders

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zachary Booth, David Conrad, Will Rogers, Lisa Joyce, and Danielle Skraastad.
Photo by Richard Termine.

In The Mound Builders, the 1975 Lanford Wilson play that Signature Theatre Company is now presenting, a team of archaeologists race against time to sift through ancient piles of earthen refuse to find valuable artifacts that may or may not be hidden within. Watching Jo Bonney's production at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, you'll understand all too well the trials the characters are enduring.

Wilson's play, which was revised for a 1986 mounting, does indeed contain a few glimmering gems. The people sifting through the scattered remains of a long-vanished native civilization in the American Midwest face issues of class, the meaning of life, and the depth of the American ideal—questions that have also driven a number of Wilson's other plays (including Talley's Folly, which is currently receiving an excellent Roundabout revival). And there's some genuine heft and tension in the group's exploration, as they confront all this in the looming twin deadlines of a lake flooding the dig site and a new interstate that will level the area entirely.

Good luck, however, locating meaning—or anything else—beneath the teeming excesses of this simultaneously overwrought and underthought production. Though Bonney has coaxed workable designs from Neil Patel (set), Theresa Squire (costumes), and Rui Rita (lights),that highlight the vaporous, dreamlike nature of the story, she hasn't fused any of the other elements into an evening cohesive enough to bring alive either history or those seeking to understand it.

The play itself does her few favors, wobbling as it does unconvincingly between the office of lead researcher August Howe and the dig site in Blue Shoals, Illinois, where he spent the previous fateful summer. When we first meet August, he's tape recording a message to his assistant, finally detailing everything that went wrong months before. Within moments, we've traveled back to the front-line farm house where it all went down, and where we'll spend most of the next two hours, except for largely random, context-setting interjections of August narrating his progress—and the behavior of those impeding it—with slides and strained speechifying.

If Wilson has scribed dialogue that tends toward the florid and the stilted, he's also set up a fascinating race against time and an intriguing catalog of runners. Joining August are his wife Cynthia, his daughter Kirsten, his colleague Dan, and Dan's wife Jean. It's not long before we also meet August's injured younger sister, Delia, and Chad, the spoiled landowner's son who has big plans for capitalizing on the new freeway. And while everyone is consumed with finding things, from fame to money to their places in the world to fulfilling relationships and even new motherhood (Jean is about to have her first baby), Wilson reveals in bits and pieces how all their natural hopes and longings interlock within the bounds of their seemingly futile quest to discover what no one is positive even exists.

The stresses of the first act believably resolve into true urgency after intermission, piercing a few schematic plot developments and a too-thick mythic overlay that too overtly highlights Wilson's underlying themes. It's all compelling enough to keep you guessing about what will happen and how, but none of it has the impact it might because Bonney and the actors conduct the action as though they're sleepwalking through a Bertolt Brecht rehearsal.

With the exceptions of David Conrad, who maintains something approaching focus as August, and Rachel Resheff, the incredibly talented youngster (from The People in the Picture) who's drastically underused as Kirsten, everyone approaches their line deliveries from an archly distant perspective. Particularly distracting is Danielle Skraastad, whose permanent narrow-eyed half-smile suggests she spends her every onstage moment waiting for the laughs she knows Delia's acerbic lines will bring, but who never seems able to even fake investment in what's unfolding around her. Jane Brookshire is a thoroughly starchy Cynthia, a problem for a woman who must exude some heat for Act II to make sense. Zachary Booth and Lisa Joyce are barkingly overeager and chemistry-free as Dan and Jean, and a mugging-prone Will Rogers lurches through the show without ever letting us see a shred of what Chad wants (or at least what he wants us to think he wants).

Intention, alas, is absent throughout, giving too overpowering a voice to the mysterious uncertainty Wilson's characters are trying to correct. If The Mound Builders lacks the polish and precision of even Wilson's somewhat later plays, like Talley's Folly, Fifth of July, or Burn This, it's still a well-rounded piece with plenty to excavate. Unfortunately, it's difficult to imagine a flatter or more hollow rendering of it than this one.

The Mound Builders
Through April 14
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
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