My Dad calls them "shouting plays." In each, we meet a dysfunctional family, usually at home, and slowly they unveil their darkest secrets. These scandals could be about anything -- affairs, stolen money, made-up children or missing dogs named Sheba. As tensions mount, voices rise, until everybody is screaming at each other. Of all possible settings for human drama to unfold, it's amazing how many plays take place in ordinary living rooms. Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee -- most of them never left the den.
Buried Child, by Sam Shepard, is just such a play. There's a weird old man, his hyper-religious wife, one idiot son and another creepy son with a prosthetic leg. They cohabitate on a run-down farm in Illinois, where they share a terrible secret. (If you're wondering what it is, the play's title is a pretty significant hint.) Like most shouting plays, Buried Child incorporates lots of booze and bickering. Characters bare their souls and other characters try to stop them. Glass and ceramics are shattered against walls. People talk in circles. Naturally, there is a poetic, soul-searching monologue, spoken by a young man in spotlight. The finale is lukewarm, even fatalistic. The result: Shepard won a Pulitzer.
The Playhouse REP has dug up Buried Child, and Pittsburgh couldn't pray for a better production. The troupe is a fine mix of New York talents and local faves, and like most of Shepard's scripts, the characterizations are far more interesting than the actual story. Yes, Buried Child is about the Death of the American Dream, but this kind of self-important despair was more fashionable in 1978 than it is today. Instead, audiences will delight in the bizarro personalities, especially Stephen Mendillo as the old codger Dodge, and Kiley Caughey as Shelly, an L.A. party girl who is way out of her element.
What's striking about Buried Child is Shepard's screwball sense of humor. Shepard isn't known for his comedy, but the play is peppered with all kinds of jokes -- crossed wires, false identities, sexist quips and an hysterical quest for whiskey. Even the vague doublespeak of the local priest is hilarious. Director John Shepard caresses these humorous moments, so that Buried Child feels less like a tragedy and more like a very bleak satire. After all, there is only so much shouting an audience can take. But an argument about who will cut the carrots? Priceless.
Buried Child continues through Sun., Feb. 21. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. $24-27. 412-621-4445 or pointpark.edu