There are skeletons in the closet, under the bed, and
behind the couch in Heartless, Sam Shepard's ethereal
and discomfiting new play set in a Los Angeles house
haunted by five lost souls.
Roscoe (Talladega Nights' Gary Cole) is the male
interloper, a 65-year-old professor of Cervantes who
left his wife and has been shacking up with Sally (Law &
Order: Criminal Intent's Julianne Nicholson), a deeply
troubled young woman less than half his age.
Complicating matters is Sally's repressed sister, Lucy
(Jenny Bacon), and their bellicose, wheelchair-bound
mother, Mable (True Blood's Lois Smith), who
begrudgingly welcome Roscoe into their house of
psychological horrors. The fifth and final member of
this ''family,'' is Mable's mute, Valkyrian nurse (Betty
Gilpin), who spends much of the play as a silent
spectator to the family's internecine viciousness.
Each is unsettling in her own way, like Tennessee
Williams characters left on the counter for so long
they've started to curdle. While every conversation
seems to be a battleground, Mable holds most of the
weapons. Supposedly pumped full of pain medication, her
mind is still a whetted straight razor that she wields
with glee, and her appearance — gnarled beneath her
shawls, but constantly enraged — is almost frightening.
There's an aura of Gothic decay running throughout the
play which, coupled with its abstract supernaturalism
and soap operaish revelations, makes it feel like a
particularly literary episode of Dark Shadows.
The title refers to Sally, who bears a long, angry
cicatrix down the middle of her torso as well as guilt
from having received a transplanted heart from a
murdered girl. But it also refers to all the characters'
interactions: There's very little empathy here. The
house is less a domicile than a prison — or, given
scenic designer Eugene Lee's spare, boundary-less set,
someplace less concrete and more insidious.
And yet there are still some moments that are oddly
touching, like Mable's (real? false?) remembrance an
encounter with James Dean. The speech — delivered
beautifully by Smith, who herself co-starred with Dean
over half a century ago in East of Eden — tugs on the
play's thematic strand of innocence lost, even if that
strand isn't then threaded into something larger and
identifiable. There's something dark and alluring about
the tapestry Shepard weaves, but it's a bit hard to tell
what it is we're supposed to be looking at.