Shepard loses flock
Sam Shepard clearly hasn’t mellowed with age. The
68-year-old playwright’s newest work, “Heartless,” which
the Signature Theatre’s giving a world premiere, reveals
a writer still railing against life’s harshness and
brutality. It’s the sort of play in which a character
doesn’t simply stop to admire a view, but declares, “I’d
like to gaze out into the abyss for a while.”
Theatergoers will probably relate to that, since the
play itself feels rather like an abyss, one devoid of
coherent meaning. Featuring elements from the
playwright’s by-now-familiar bag of tricks — warring
families, non sequitur-filled dialogue — it lacks the
emotional resonance and sheer entertainment value of
Shepard’s now-classic “True West” and “A Lie of the
Set in a palatial home situated high above Los Angeles,
“Heartless” concerns a fractured family whose dark
secrets emerge with the arrival of a hapless interloper:
Roscoe (Gary Cole), a 65-year-old classics professor
who’s left his wife and taken up with the
decades-younger Sally (Julianne Nicholson).
Even though he comes bearing a goodwill offering of
jelly doughnuts, Roscoe is hardly embraced by Sally’s
bitter older sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon) or the sisters’
wheelchair-bound mother, Mable (Lois Smith), whose
infirmity hasn’t diminished her ferocious temper.
“Stop calling me ma’am all the time,” she snaps at
Roscoe’s attempt at politeness. “Feels like we’re in
‘Gone With the Goddamn Wind.’ ”
As the play lugubriously unfolds, nothing really happens
beyond Shepard’s usual blend of magical realism and
heavy-handed symbolism. Sally has a long scar down her
chest, dating back to a childhood heart transplant from
a young murder victim. One of the characters may or may
not be a ghost. Mabel’s dutiful nurse (Betty Gilpin),
previously described as mute, suddenly begins talking.
When she returns from a jog, her feet are covered in
“I run when I’ve come to the end of my rope,” she
As with so many of Shepard’s works, what it all means is
anybody’s guess. But here the mysteries seem shapeless,
the conflicts arbitrary. And while the dialogue displays
traces of his trademark sardonic humor, the proceedings
are mostly dreary and uninvolving.
Daniel Aukin’s subdued direction makes the two-hour play
seem longer than it is. Nor does his staging clarify
such confusing moments as when Sally appears to take a
suicidal leap off a cliff, only to nonchalantly stroll
onstage a few minutes later.
The uneven performances don’t help matters. The
ever-reliable Smith, a Shepard veteran (“Buried Child”),
earns her laughs as the irascible Mable, and Bacon and
Gilpin have a galvanizing emotional intensity. Cole
(TV’s “The West Wing,” “The Good Wife”) is appealing but
bland, and Nicholson (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”)
registers as little more than sullen.
With more pondering, the mysteries of “Heartless” may
eventually come into focus. Or, as Gertrude Stein once
observed, maybe there’s simply no there there.