Heartless Review (edited)
Hilton Als, The New Yorker

Mother Knows Best
The women take control in “Heartless.”

Unlike much of Shepard's work, "Heartless" isn't nostalgic for the fantasy of the Old West, where the romance was between men - fathers and sons and brothers. Instead, it tries to dramatize what men imagine women are like when men aren't watching.

Eugene Lee's set for "Heartless" doesn't tell us much about the universe we're about to enter. The stage floor has been painted black. Two beds sit center stage. Three palm trees line the proscenium. The scene evokes the slick, empty surfaces of nineteen-seventies pornographic films shot in Los Angeles - a cold fantasy space inhabited by pale bodies. And these beds are, indeed, occupied by pale bodies: those of Roscoe (Gary Cole) and Sally (the luminous Julianne Nicholson). We hear a woman cry offstage. Roscoe leaps out of bed. He's an average-sized guy, who looks younger than his sixty-five years, tough, but a little dull and fearful around the edges. Did Sally hear that sound? She did. Roscoe tells her that when he woke up he thought they were in a motel, because of the windows, but they're not. They're in Sally's mother's house, in Southern California, where they have stopped off while travelling around America, making a documentary film. But a document of what? Their relationship? (Roscoe, a Cervantes professor, loves chasing windmills; he has left his wife and children for the much younger Sally.) Or is their film about reality itself? That part of the story is still to come. For now, Sally wants to go back to sleep. After a while, Roscoe wanders away to take his howling dog for a walk, and Sally rolls over and tries to drift off.

Beds are an important motif in Shepard's work... In "Heartless" the beds are where characters try to make sense of their inchoate thoughts, even as their minds wander in a kind of dream state. Sally's dreams seem to be about her double. Giving up on sleep, wrapping a sheet around her, she sits up and faces the audience as though she knows who we are. And maybe she does. But that moment of connection passes when she begins to address another young woman, a sister, perhaps, or a fantasy figure, who she believes gave her a heart and who now haunts her...

"Heartless" relies on the melodramatic form to convey its observations, but it has been bled of melodrama's passions. Aukin has the actors deliver Shepard's tonal language in flat voices, with a marked lack of theatricality. Richard Maxwell is the contemporary master of this kind of writing and direction, but Shepard and Aukin aren't used to it; you get the sense that they're trying something out with "Heartless". Perhaps it's a new way of working for both of them, but it doesn't seem to be a natural one.  The staging comes across not as an interpretative vision but as a lack thereof...

Shepard's great strengths are his Kerouac-like robustness, even silliness, and his poetic resistance to explaining his artistic impulses, as he digs and digs to get at something that means something to his consciousness, especially his unresolved relationship with his father. But the only character in "Heartless" who seems to have that kind of pull on him is Mable Murphy (brilliantly portrayed by Lois Smith), the wheelchair-bound matriarch to these far-out sisters. Once it becomes clear that Roscoe can't hack it in this wonderland of wounded women, which includes Mable's nurse, Elizabeth (the powerful Betty Gilpin), who uses him for sex and nothing more. Mable takes center stage to play Mother, the greatest role in any family drama, to her daughter's lover. A variation on the Shepard father figure, Mable is squinty-eyed, hard-hearted, and cynical. Could it be that Shepard's ideal woman is some version of Dad? Or is "Heartless" ultimately about role-playing, Shepard's attempt to imagine what would happen if women donned stereotypically male attitudes about sex and intimacy, until they merged with the cowboys of his mind?