Sam Shepard’s most personal American drama, A Lie of the Mind — interweaving his favorite themes of fraternal, paternal, and marital discord — is in fine hands with director Ethan Hawke’s hearty Off Broadway production of the award-winning 1985 play. Though Hawke’s well-documented admiration for the playwright didn’t prevent him from chopping an hour off the original’s nearly four-hour running time, he assembles a marvelous combination of players to torment each other and resurrect the spellbinding uneasiness of the original.
Two unhappy families of the American West, tied together by a volatile marriage, are fractured when jealous Jake (Alessandro Nivola) brutally beats his wife, Beth (Marin Ireland), and leaves her for dead. Her brain damage is significant. His guilt is crippling. The story ingeniously unfolds at opposite ends of the same country-cozy set, as both parties retreat to their respective dysfunctional families. Jake is a childish brute, and Nivola plays him with equal parts charm and menace: He’s never more dangerous than when he’s smiling at you. The rest of his family has cracks of its own. Jake’s adoring mother (Karen Young, who played her character’s daughter in the 1985 production) treats romantic love as a disease, his sister (Maggie Siff) harbors a horrible secret, his milder brother (Josh Hamilton) wants the combative couple to reconcile — maybe? — and Jake’s dead father haunts him from the urn beneath his childhood bed.
Ireland is engrossing as the recuperating beauty whose head injuries have hindered her speech but dislodged some important emotional truths. Her parents (the delightful duo of Keith Carradine and Laurie Metcalf) are practically catatonic — not from their daughter’s beating, but from their own tired existence. They’re simply running out the clock, leaving Beth’s loyal and increasingly manic brother, Mike (Frank Whaley), to pick up the pieces.
Shepard’s works frequently wrestle with an inscrutable strain of American madness, and the homegrown, organic music of Latham and Shelby Gaines underscores both the play’s most stubborn contradictions and its soulful sadness. The duo, (who, in true Shepardian fashion, happen to be brothers) elicit music from common household items, such as brooms and saws, during moments of heightened intensity and transitional interludes.
It’s in those moments of enhanced passion that the play occasionally stumbles. Shepard’s plays always cook better when the rage is set for simmer rather than boil. The eruptions are never as unnerving — or convincing — as the slow burn, and Whaley’s mushrooming outrage, in particular, comes off as merely petulant instead of pugnacious. The production also wobbles a bit in its late stages, due in part to some dubious theatrical choreography, but the play’s foundation and vivid performances deliver a memorable experience. At its heart, A Lie of the Mind is simultaneously a chilling indictment of true love and a passionate paean to a soul mate’s enduring siren call. Vintage, vibrant Shepard. A-
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