Heartless Review: Sam Shepard’s Woman Play
Roscoe, the only male character in Sam Shepard’s new, enigmatic play “Heartless,” fondly recalls “my junkie days – Avenue D, 14th Street, Dunkin’ Donuts, cops, transvestite fist fights, hookers and faggots, the strung-out and hopeless” – a world that the teenage Shepard encountered when he moved from out West to New York City, where he soon became America’s first rock-‘n-roll cowboy playwright.
A half century later, Shepard, who long ago moved back West, is far better known to the general public as a lanky and laconic movie star. He, like his new character Roscoe, is now eligible for senior citizen status. And the world of “Heartless,” despite Rocoe’s out-of-nowhere line of in-your-face nostalgia, is far removed from Shepard’s early days, or his early plays’ spontaneous bursts of masculine energy, rock rhythms, the threat of outlaw violence.
Yes, “Heartless,” shares with Shepard’s best-known dramas certain themes and theatrical devices—dysfunctional family secrets, barren landscapes, disturbing imagery, a taste for symbols and the surreal – but they are presented from the distaff half. Roscoe is only a visitor.
Roscoe (Gary Cole) is an English professor in Los Angeles, who has separated from his wife and family and is staying with a woman half his age named Sally, in her odd oversized house overlooking L.A. Sally (Julianne Nicholson) may be a filmmaker or videographer; she has in any case a video camera she takes out on occasion. She tells her family that she and Roscoe are making a film together, but can’t tell them what it’s about.
Sally lives with her sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon), a bitter spinster; their mother Mable (Lois Smith), who is blunt-talking and mean and in a wheelchair; and Mable’s nurse Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin).
From nearly the moment the play begins, we are presented with one mystery after another:
Why does Sally, whom we first see naked from the waist up, have a tremendous red scar running vertically between her breasts?
What is Roscoe to Sally and Sally to Roscoe?
What was the accident that has put Mother Mable in a wheelchair?
Why doesn’t the nurse speak, except now and then in a wordless scream?
What’s with the bloody feet; the character who talks while completely covered by a bedsheet; the off-stage, never-seen barking dog?
Some of these mysteries are answered during the course of “Heartless.” Sally has a scar because, when she was a child, she had a diseased heart, and doctors transplanted a healthy heart from a girl her age who had been murdered. But the answers to the mysteries create even more mysteries. Soon it becomes clear that “Heartless” is a ghost story; possibly an allegory; certainly a puzzle, albeit riddled with clues. They are the kind of clues that would help make a terrific English paper, perhaps for Roscoe’s class. But do they help make a terrific play?
The playwright Tom Stoppard has said: “If you exclude authentic genius from the landscape — the wilder shores of Beckett for example — coherence and narrative tensions and catharsis are the business of a playwright.”
Is Sam Shepard an authentic genius like Beckett? I’m tempted to ask: Can you picture Samuel Beckett co-starring with Diane Keaton in Baby Boom? That, however, is unfair. “Heartless” is Shepard’s 50th play, or close to it. He deserves the benefit of the doubt as a playwright; any play of his deserves to be treated with respect.
Never one to emphasize clarity, Shepard made up for it in his most exciting plays by the tension and the catharsis. For my taste, there is not enough narrative tension, and even less catharsis, in “Heartless” to make up for its lack of coherence.
The play’s director is Daniel Aukin, who is the former artistic director of the Soho Rep and has done some splendid work – most recently Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles at Lincoln Center Theater, one of my favorite productions last season. But here he chooses to play down the potential humor and absurdities in Shepard’s script, and give free rein to the long pauses, which in another play one might call pregnant, but here would probably more accurately be described as still-born. The set is similarly abstract, spare and dark.
It is not possible to fault a cast that features actors with such impeccable track records as the magnificent Lois Smith. (It is perhaps an inside joke – or one of the clues – that Smith recites a monologue that explains how her character got injured: She fell from a tree while watching “East of Eden” in a drive-in movie theater. Lois Smith had a role in that James Dean movie.) One wonders if the play would have worked better had the actresses not performed largely in one note – Sally despondent, Lucy bitter, Mable angry, Elizabeth the nurse zombie-like. Gary Cole comes the closest to playing an actual human being.
After Mable explains her accident in the drive-in movie theater, her daughter Lucy asks her nurse Liz what she thought of Mable’s speech. “Did it have a certain sort of resonance – a reverberation – or did it just go in one ear and out the other?”
It’s as if, coyly, the playwright is asking the audience this question about his play. It would be heartless to answer anything but: Both.
By Sam Shepard
The Irene Diamond Stage at the Signature Theater
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Scenic Design by Eugene Lee, Costume Design by Kaye Voyce, Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Cast: Jenny Bacon, Gary Cole, Betty Gilpin , Julianne Nicholson, Lois Smith
Ticket price: Until September 16: $20 (sold out). After: $75
Running through September 30.
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