Shepard's `States of Shock' Tests the Viewer's Patience

STATES OF SHOCK Play by Sam Shepard. Directed by Bill Hart. At the American Place Theatre until June 2.

THE first few minutes of Sam Shepard's new drama at the American Place Theatre are also the most exciting - if not the most shocking. The play opens with a tremendous light-and-sound show simulating overhead jets, night-lighted artillery fire, and attacking tanks.

Ensuing events comprise a Shepard-style symbolic drama for the '90s with images from the '60s. The setting is a slightly bizarre restaurant equipped with an isolated table and a banquette. The patrons are a pair of Army veterans and a couple symbolically identified as White Man and White Woman.

The Colonel (John Malkovich) has picked up his wartime buddy Stubbs (Michael Wincott) at a nearby hospital. Their date commemorates the occasion when Stubbs made a vain attempt to save the Colonel's son in battle. Stubbs still bears the hideous wound he suffered when a bullet went through his chest. As the play opens, the men are strenuously discussing the site and circumstances of the rescue attempt.

In the course of its complex dialogues and food consumption, ``States of Shock'' touches on a range of issues, including the decline of America, the state of the national psyche, and the inadvertencies of war. In a typical exchange, when one of the customers wants to complain to the manager, waitress Glory Bee (Erica Gimpel) replies curtly: ``The manager is dead.''

A few additional quotes suggest the tone and tenor of the sometimes cryptic discourse: ``The part of me that goes on living has no memory of the part that's dead.... What we are after is the bare bones.... The enemy has finally brought us together.... How could we be victorious and still suffer this terrible loss? ... It was friendly fire that took us out.... I don't remember any quiet times.... Aggression is the only answer.... I miss the cold war with all my heart.''

At one point, one of the White couple observes: ``We've been here forever,'' a sentiment with which some spectators may sympathize. Although ``States of Shock'' lasts only about 80 minutes and is presented without intermission, it can seem interminable.

For their part, the actors - directed by Bill Hart - prove faithful to the author's intent, even at his most sexually explicit. Mr. Malkovich, a Shepard veteran, gives a volatile, histrionically high-pitched performance as the bullying Colonel. He and Miss Gimpel also dance a nifty duet. While Stubbs proves no match for his overbearing superior, Mr. Wincott embodies the wheelchair-bound veteran's determination to survive. Isa Thomas and Steve Nelson preserve a snooty distance as the bourgeois White coup le. Miss Gimpel's best moments as Glory Bee occur when the would-be singing waitress delivers a wistful ``Good Morning, Heartache.'' This, with the ensemble performance of ``Good Night, Irene,'' provide the play with its most moving passages.

Bill Stabile designed the minimal setting. The costumes are by Gabriel Berry. Pat Dignan and Anne Militello created the lighting design with its exciting pyrotechnics. Richard Dworkin and Joseph Sabella are the indispensable backstage percussionists.

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