11/07/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2014

"Sticks and Bones": The Way We Were During Vietnam Via Rabe

The rage that polarized the country over the Vietnam War now, decades later, often seems a distant memory. A gripping revival of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones, led by excellent performances from Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter, jolts those passions back to life.

Under the smart direction of Scott Elliott for The New Group at the Signature Theater, Rabe's scathing 1972 satire remains a caustic tale on the ravages that war, any war, can inflict not only on those fighting it but on their uncomprehending families at home. The specific war in Sticks and Bones, of course, is Vietnam, a conflict whose horrors Americans learned to watch over dinner on TV before switching to their favorite sitcom.

It is the key conceit of Rabe's play that it parodies one of the most popular of all TV sitcoms, "The Ozzie and Harriet Show," which became the paradigm of all wholesome and upright American families. The father and mother in Sticks and Bones are named Ozzie and Harriet, and their two sons are David and Rick. David has gone off to fight in Vietnam, while Rick strums his guitar, plays with his camera, and spends most of his time in his room.

The lights come up on Ozzie and Harriet being visited by their parish priest, Father Donald, when the telephone rings. Ozzie answers it but is unable to respond to the caller. Moments later there is a pounding knock on the door, but he is equally reluctant to open it, as though he has a premonition of the misfortune that lurks on the other side.

In fact, the knock is from a U.S. Army sergeant who is delivering a blind soldier to a certain address, but provides no further information and refuses Harriet's offer of a cup of coffee and some cake. "I've got to get going," he says. "I've got trucks out there backed up for blocks. Other boys ... their backs been broken, their brains jellied, their insides turned into garbage. No-legged boys and one-legged boys. I don't have time for coffee. I got deliveries to make all across this country."

But David doesn't arrive home alone. He brings with him the specter of a Vietnamese girl named Zung whom he left behind and who now haunts his conscience. And he has some home movies that turn out to be blank but over which he narrates the gruesome killing of a Vietnamese village couple, an atrocity Harriet cites as an example of the awful things "those yellow people do to one another."

David furiously attacks his parents' ignorance of Vietnam. "Did you think it was a place like this?" he asks them. "Sinks and kitchens all the world over? Is that what you believe? Water from faucets, light from wires? Trucks, telephones, TV."

For anyone old enough to remember, Sticks and Bones can be a stark reminder of the virulent racial prejudice against Southeast Asians that prevailed in the country at the time. For the majority who were not yet born, it may come as something of a shock to encounter.

David tries to explain the bigotry of the era when he talks to Zung as though she were there, asking her forgiveness. "There were voices inside me I had trusted all my life as if they were my own," he says. "I didn't know I shouldn't hear them."

There is a poetic surrealism that threads through Sticks and Bones that is very much of its time, like early Sam Shepard, even Beckettian. The dialogue runs from the mundane to the bizarre, often within the same scene or even monologue, as it peels back the layers of anger and ignorance to reveal an ugly, self-satisfied national psyche that can still haunt us.

The vitriol at the heart of that xenophobia often spills over into intra-familial hatreds, as when Ozzie confides his feelings about Harriet and his sons: "They think they know me and they know nothing. They don't know how I feel. How I'd like to beat Ricky with my fists till his face is ugly! How I'd like to throw David out on the streets. How I'd like to cut her tongue from her mouth! They know nothing!"

Elliott has put together a top-notch cast. Pullman is superb as Ozzie, wild-eyed like a madman, full of repressed anger as he struggles to keep a rein on his sanity while plodding toward his idea of a cozy family circle. Hunter battles through a sort of controlled hysteria as she juggles making fudge for Ricky and coming to terms with David's violent outbursts, turning to Father Donald for solace.

Raviv Ullman is brilliant as young Rick, unperturbed by any of the anguish that swirls around him, coming and going with a cheery "Hi, mom; hi, dad" with his guitar slung across his shoulder. Ben Schnetzer is full of fury as he rails against his family and his own discoveries about himself, shouting at one point, "Why didn't you tell me what I was?"

Richard Chamberlain is serene as the priest, placidly spouting platitudes that fail to bring any comfort. Nadia Gan is ethereal and enigmatic as Zung, and Morocco Omari is commanding and military as the Sergeant Major.