11/24/2014 12:06 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

First Nighter: Shepard's "A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)," Behar's "Me, My Mouth and I"

Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea have collaborated on projects for 40 years, ever since Shepard directed Rea in a Royal Court production of Shepard's Geography of a Horse Dreamer. More recently, Rea appeared in Dublin's Abbey, London's Almeida and New York City's Public doing a transferring production of Shepard's disappointing look at the dying Old West, Kicking a Dead Horse.

Now they're together again in A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It's a definite improvement over the last teaming, but nonetheless I'm of two minds about it. In one mind, I think it's terribly pretentious. In the other mind, I think it's terribly pretentious, but I'm willing to go with it in large part because of how audacious its pretensions are.

A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) is nothing less than--as the parenthetical end of the title states--a replay of Sophocles's classic tragedy crossed with a modern-day, California-based spin on the devastating predecessor plot. As such, it's tough not to be inexorably pulled into Shepard's bold nightmare.

Right from the get-go of the 90-minuteintermissionless enterprise, he involves you. You may resist, but I didn't when Rea entered designer Frank Conway's large white-tiled room with a raised niche stage left where cellist Neil Martin and dobro slide guitarist Todd Livingston occasionally play Martin's somber music. Barely visible in Michael Chybowski's tenebrous light, Rea is mopping up an impressive amount of blood, some of it dripping from him.

After he's spoken without making his identity clear, he leaves. He's replaced by a man squeezing blood from what look like rags. He says, however, that they're intestines by which he tells futures to people who, he thinks, shouldn't want their futures known. Only eventually is it revealed that this is Tiresias (Lloyd Hutchinson). He's foreseen that Jocasta-- (Brid Brennan), first shown locked in a cage--will give birth to a son who'll murder her husband and marry her. Those who know the Oedipus Rex action can fill in the rest.

Abruptly, the scene not only changes but leaps forward a few millennia to today and to a crossroads outside of San Bernardino--not too far from Cucamonga--where Police Officer Harrington (Jason Kolotouros) and Forensic Investigator RJ Randolph (Matthew Rauch) are examining the site of a recent roadside multiple murder.

It's as if Shepard has just dropped us into a CSI episode. Maybe it's Elementary, since Investigator Reynolds, going on skimpy clues, correctly imagines, as if a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, how the three murders were carried out--one of the victims being crime boss Langos (Aidan Redmond).

With the two-part set-up established, Shepard skitters back and forth from replaying Oedipus Rex to following the contemporary murder case--which brings a shabbily dressed Traveler (Hutchinson again) into the proceedings as well as two inquisitive locals, Otto (Rea) and Jocelyn (Brennan). Not too long after that, Antigone and Anna Lee (both played by Judith Roddy), enter to voice laments in their separate time periods.

Before long, the similarity of circumstances, becomes not only apparent but, as Shepard pushes it, blatant. And it's not only the similarity of names that gives it away--Oedipus/Otto, Jocasta/Jocelyn, Langos/Laius (Jocasta's hubby, Oedipus's dad, of course) and the rhyming Antigone/Anna Lee.

This is where Shepard's point increasingly comes into focus. In his theatrical way he's reiterating George Santayana's quote, "Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." He's also paraphrasing Karl Marx's quote, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." Only Shepard sees it first as tragedy, second as tragedy--and third, fourth and fifth as tragedy.

Oh, well, if what is known now as the Oedipal Complex isn't an uncommon psychological occurrence--it suggests that in any family, sons unconsciously long to murder their father so that they can marry their mother--why not, as Shepard lays things out, the entire Oedipus Rex plot? It's a plot that includes the crossroads assassinations in both of Shepard's time frames?

As the actors quick-change costumes to appear back then or right now--no matter which characters they're playing--Shepard gets his jollies not only having them muddle through the similar predicaments and but also having them continually comment on them, sometimes drolly and sometimes cantankerously.

I can't report that what he has them say is always crystal clear, nor can I insist a fair amount of the colloquy isn't irritatingly hoity-toity. But as played by the cast members with unflagging conviction, they never let Shepard's fireworks fizzle.

The director is Nancy Meckler, who never lets an audience down. Among her notable accomplishments is heading the remarkable Shared Experience company for 22 years. She doesn't work that often in New York City. (Is this her first time?) So her presence with Shepard's curious multi-tragedy (she's guided sex Shepard works previously) is especially welcome.
Because Joy Behar is smart and funny and because she likes so much of what she kids about that she can laugh with, and at, herself and because, if you share her liberal viewpoints even though when she was on ABC talk radio, she was sandwiched between Bob Grant and Rush Limbaugh, you have to love her.

The place to love and laugh with--but never at--her now is the Cherry Lane Theatre, where she's ostensibly doing a show called Me, My Mouth and I. Okay, she calls it a show and has a lectern and stool at one side of the stage and an armless yellow club chair and end table with lamp at the other side.

The two chairs means she occasionally sits down. But don't be fooled by the sitting. What she's doing is a 90-minute stand-up routine. Ironically enough, she's no more than a short walk from the Greenwich Village comedy clubs where she began honing her act only a few decades back.

She talks about those days, as she riffs on her life as Brooklyn-born Josephine Ochiuto. She's autobiographical about her early days as a four-year-old entertaining the crowd in her building and how she then grew up a good Catholic girl who got an education, married a sociologist and had a child.

She goes into laugh-provoking detail on her relatively late entrance into comedy. She was 40 when she decided to devote full time to it. As she's so in control now, it's surprising to hear her discuss the long incubation period, often using projections to illustrate her comic points. Wait until she gets to her learning about Catherine Deneuve's regrets.

Deneuve was a guest on The View, and of course Behar talks about that 16-year stint. How could she not? She knows what people want to hear. She doesn't dwell on it and Barbara Walters to excess, though. On the other hand, she does end with an Elizabeth Hasselbeck joke.