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.