Terry Kinney begins his solid revival of the 1978 Sam Shepard drama “Curse of the Starving Class” with a jolting coup de theatre: Julian Crouch’s set of a grubby kitchen in coastal California breaks apart before our eyes, with walls and shelves and the pots and pans that crowded them clattering loose in a tableau of radical domestic disarray that sets the stage for Shepard’s dysfunctional family drama.
It’s a cool moment, and it reflects the play’s transitional place in Shepard’s oeuvre, between the absurdism of his early plays and the hyper-realism of later works like the Pulitzer winner “Buried Child.”
But aside from the onstage appearance of an adorable, scene-stealing lamb, the rest of Kinney’s production — which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center — never quite matches the shock of its opening moments.
Shepard depicts a family on the edge — both personally and economically, with an absentee, alcoholic father and a much-opened refrigerator that stubbornly remains mostly empty. Each member of the clan is looking out for themselves, and each is seeking a means of escape that’s more permanent than the one of the family patriarch, Weston (David Warshofsky).
For his wife, Ella (Maggie Siff, “Billions”), that means flirting with a shady lawyer (Andrew Rothenberg) to whom she might sell the family’s rundown farm for corporate development. For teenage daughter Emma (Lizzy DeClement, playing a bit too sassy millennial), a straight-A student who’s just gotten her first period, running away takes on an urgency that resists all moralizing efforts.
Only older son Wesley (Gilles Geary) seems rooted to the homestead, mocking both his mother and sister’s ambitions to forge a better life for themselves elsewhere. “It’d be the same as it is here,” he scoffs at his mother’s suggestion that they sell the farm and move to Europe together. When his mother insists they’d be in “a whole new place, a whole new world,” he responds practically, “But we’d all be the same people.”
And it’s clear from this play that not only are people at the economic edges of society unlikely to escape their circumstances, but they are similarly rooted to their patterns of behavior: Ella retreats into fantasies and self-delusion; Wesley flinches every time his father raises his voice or comes near him.
Kinney’s production hits these beats in workmanlike fashion, with Natasha Katz’s lighting design literally spotlighting some of Shepard’s more poetic speechifying. There’s not a great deal of subtlety here, either in the performances or in Shepard’s often on-the-nose metaphors (it’s no accident that the family farm is devoted to raising sheep).
As a result, the reversals of plot and character in the last act fail to deliver the impact they deserve.