No one can accuse Kicking a Dead Horse of not living up to its title. Less than five minutes into Sam Shepard's drama, a male actor is literally kicking a giant prop that resembles a dead horse. A booming sound effect even echoes every time that he boots the poor animal. But that's probably the nicest thing we have to say about this otherwise dull play.
The 2007-08 Public Theater's season, which is expected to end on a high note when Hair starts performances on Tuesday night in Central Park, has mostly been a disappointment. The idea was to showcase new works by famed playwrights such as Caryl Churchill, Richard Nelson, David Henry Hwang, and Stephen Adly Guirgis. And while it's nice to have them back at the Public , their new plays weren't much to brag about.
Kicking a Dead Horse, an 80-minute one-man monologue with one small cameo, explores the psyche of an aging Manhattan art dealer who, obsessed with paintings of the mythic Wild West, treks out on a horse to become an old-fashioned cowboy. Against an endlessly arid landscape, we see that he is stranded in the desert and the horse has keeled over. After digging a hole large enough to bury the corpse, he finds that it's too heavy to push over into its grave.
Given the play's minimalist style, absurdities, and emphasis on a single metaphor (i.e. the death of sentimental American goodwill), Shepard ought to subtitle it "My attempt to write a Samuel Beckett play!" But like most Beckett, the action is so static that it's a challenge to maintain any interest in the show beyond the first ten minutes.
Portraying Shepard's lost, misguided cowboy is Stephen Rea, an Irish actor who is mostly known for his dramatic performance in the 1992 film The Crying Game. As personally directed by Mr. Shepard, Rea captures the character's sad, existential qualities, but ignores the black comedy elements that ought to be heightened.