In his recent work for the stage, the great Sam Shepard seemed to be drawing inspiration anew from theater-of-the-absurd influences. Kicking a Dead Horse (2009) and Ages of the Moon (2010) both had a deep streak of Beckett morbidity and Ionesco nuttiness; they also recalled Shepard’s own ’60s experiments in the East Village. Now the cowboy playwright appears to be branching out along the genealogical tree; Heartless feels like Shepard’s attempt to write an Edward Albee drama. It features a waspish but articulate matriarch and existential head games played on a hapless houseguest. The result, despite an impressive cast and Daniel Aukin’s evocative direction, is a piece lacking most major organs, not just the blood-pumping one.
It’s a credit to this handsome, atmospheric production that the thinness and vagueness of the script only rankles in the second act. In a roomy, gloomy house overlooking the Los Angeles grid, leathery Shepard surrogate Roscoe (Gary Cole) awakens to a scream. The lissome young lady in the adjacent bed, Sally (Julianne Nicholson), has heard nothing. In the scene that follows, it’s unclear whether they’re lovers or if she simply picked Roscoe up like a stray dog. In shuffles Lucy (the splendid Jenny Bacon), Sally’s dour, spinsterish sister and later, their acid-tongued, wheelchair-bound mother, Mable (Lois Smith). For extra gothic kick, Shepard throws in a sexy, mute nurse (Betty Gilpin) with a shadowy connection to Sally who—I forgot to mention this—has a long scar down her chest where she had a heart transplant years before.
Heartless is a mysterious play speckled with clues, but one has little desire to put them together or look for a solution. Instead, the stream-of-consciousness monologues and absurdist plot twists feel like cryptic vamping for their own sake. Perhaps Shepard wanted to write about a middle-aged man who, like Roscoe, left his wife. Or a symbolist tone poem about people who are scarred and paralyzed, within and without. Or an allegory about the dying West. Let’s just say that he succeeds on all counts; but that doesn’t make this wan exercise in lyrical weirdness any more compelling.—David Cote
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