Heartless Review
Elysa Gardner

"Heartless" revels in Sam Shepard's lost souls

"I've never seen such a house full of wackos!" a man named Roscoe exclaims toward the end of Sam Shepard's Heartless (* * * stars out of four), now in its world premiere off-Broadway.

Roscoe is the sole male character in the play, which opened Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center. In his mid-60s and recently estranged from his wife, he finds himself a visitor his outsider status is stressed throughout in the home of four women who do seem a bit off. To put it mildly.

Sally, who brought Roscoe in, is in her early 30s and has a scar stretching from her collarbone to her navel. She treasures her video camera, with which she and Roscoe are making a documentary though its subject isn't clear, and his interest in the project is dubious at best.

Lucy, Sally's older sister, is at once distracted (or stoned) and acerbic. Lucy shuffles about like a zombie in between harping on Sally and trying to tend to their mother, Mable Murphy, who is almost completely paralyzed after a bizarre accident. Mable, a feisty old crone in spite of her physical incapacitation, prefers the company of Elizabeth, her nurse, who is mute or hysterical until the second act, when it emerges that she may share a connection with Sally.

These characters fit into Shepard's pantheon of damaged, dysfunctional people linked by blood and desperation, but there is something particularly bleak and detached about their circumstances. The text and playbill quote Ionesco, and there are clear shades of Beckett, a key influence on Shepard, in the way these folks get nowhere. (Cervantes also gets a nod; Roscoe is a professor specializing in his work.) Inaction appears to be their destiny.

Roscoe seems most likely to escape the desolation. He entered this house by choice, apparently, and there are references to his being "lost." What Heartless reinforces is that we're all lost, in various stages of decay and disrepair.

Characteristically, Shepard finds the dark humor in this quandary. And in this Signature Theatre production, director Daniel Aukin and his cast serve that wit capably, for the most part. Julianne Nicholson can be a bit overzealous in stressing her Sally's childish, defensive nature, so that some of her readings seem chilly and flat. But she forges a funny, tender rapport with Betty Gilpin's increasingly wry Elizabeth, Jennu Bacon's arch Lucy and Gary Cole's perplexed Roscoe.

The marvelous Lois Smith gives Mable both delicious bite and an ineffable poignancy. Surveying Eugene Lee's appropriately stark, minimalist set from a wheelchair, the actress connects her physically and psychically shattered character to all of us spinning our wheels, waiting for that sign of progress or redemption that always seems just beyond our grasp.