Heartless Review
Frank Scheck, NY Post

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 Mind.”

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 blood.

“I run when I’ve come to the end of my rope,” she explains.

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.