I attended "Heartless" with a cursory knowledge of Sam Shepard’s body of work. I loved "True West" with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. I equally enjoyed Christopher Durang’s irreverent parody of his work, "A Sty in the Eye." "Simpatico" made me wonder if Shepard was past his prime. Even Ed Harris couldn’t give it legs. What I know about Shepard’s work is gleaned from reading the odd drama criticism and Hollywood interviews.
A certain playwrighting teacher of mine called Shepard’s work "the ballscratcher plays." Others lumped into this category are the works of straight white guys: Mamet and his fraternity. Ballscratcher playwrights pen the manly man plays in which the protagonist ruminates on the meaning of the universe while figuratively if not literally scratching his bits. He usually takes lots of time to do both.
"Heartless" is not one of these plays. Now running at the Irene Diamond Theater through September 30, this new play evinces a fragmented focus and lackluster direction but perhaps some new direction in Shepard’s work.
The dramatic weaknesses are abundant, however. A female cry opens "Heartless." Whose voice it is remains unresolved. The scenic design by Eugene Lee creates a sense of a precipitous off-kilter world that is allegedly set in the San Fernando Valley. With lights up one sees separate beds that appear to be placed on a patio perched on a steep incline to the edge of an abyss.
Action commences but it is very difficult if not impossible to embrace this world. Despite precise stage directions in the script, time and place are elusive. Even Roscoe (Gary Cole)’s chirpy entrance with a jelly donut breakfast for Sally (Julianne Nicholson) fails to ground the play. One questions is this a "real" place or is it Hell?
Who is the protagonist? In some press releases, Sally is. It’s plausible, but hers is a character so meek and receding that one loses interest immediately. To any extent there is a protagonist it is Roscoe, a 60-ish Cervantes scholar. He has abandoned his wife and kids for refuge in a chaste liaison with Sally, 30 years his junior.
Roscoe’s conflicts dominate the action and storyline. He is hunkered down, the war-weary soldier licking his wounds in the bosom of this feminine household. If you squint, maybe modern academia looks like the Wild West. Shepard’s typical obsessions are conspicuously absent. If Roscoe is the protagonist, this is a play about a guy getting back into the saddle of middle class conformity. The stakes are ridiculously low.
Stylistically, "Heartless’" characters seem stranded somewhere between abstraction and realism. Discordant elements of set, characters and even costume (designed by Kay Voyce) pose significant obstacles to achieving a coherent dramatic vision. As symbols, the babbling crone, the repressed spinster, old West references and the open road, chaste lovers, the aging patriarch inhabit the stage but don’t alchemize. The device of the seductive and mute nurse (Betty Gilpin) whose silent scream is not so silent implodes from the sheer symbolic weight she must carry. Gilpin does wonders with the role.
Staging by Daniel Aukin is flat and unimaginative. In the first act the majority of the action takes place at a patio table with four women assembled around it, and Roscoe. As the mother, Mable (Lois Smith) and sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon) interrogate him and Sally defends him, Roscoe reacts like a male celebrity on "The View" ambushed by a quartet of furies vying for his soul.
It is not clear why but Sally has assigned herself the role of videographing Roscoe’s life. She pulls the camera out at inopportune moments that signify some meaning. Yet nothing comes from her invasion of privacy; for that matter, nothing ever comes of the project. The camera’s presence works like a loaded gun that never gets fired.
The intrusion of the camera, however, does incite Roscoe’s rhapsodic memory of a misspent youth as a heroin junkie on 14th Street in New York City. Unfortunately, Sally is not impressed with Roscoe’s boast. As she probes deeper about his motive for the sordid revelation, he admits vainly that he wants her to think he is more than a staid academic. Roscoe’s vanity is cringe-inducing but his despair is comical.
The second act begins awkwardly with the mute servant/fetish object, Liz, straddling Roscoe. Wielding the camera like a dick, Sally interrupts their fucking but acts largely unaffected by the infidelity. Roscoe reacts with shame, covering his head like an old maid, and demanding the footage. Confusion erupts quickly when consecutively both Liz and Sally jump off the "edge" but return later, Sally with no particular purpose but to interrogate Liz about her blood spattered feet.
The second act climax is an ensemble scene with Jenny Bacon’s Lucy spazzing out far upstage, and Mable’s crazy mouth launching barbs at Roscoe while Roscoe rants about the events of his life. In this scene every character takes a moment to have her/his own personal freakout. But only Roscoe’s stops the action cold.
In the incoherence of his rant, a glimpse of an underlying truth emerges that threatens a potent cultural fantasy. It has been one of Shepard’s favorites: that of the spiritual transcendence found in The Open Road. There’s a well-nourished hope that one can always flee the disaster of one’s life by hitting the mythical Open Road. But here Roscoe realizes that eventually the road ends. There is nothing beyond it but decline and death. This is a reckoning of sorts but Roscoe chooses denial.
On the surface, "Heartless" could be about the comic savagery of family relations. Yet it hints at the rude awakening of inevitable decline; the spectacle of diminishing powers whether you are a man or a country.
"Heartless" runs through September 30 at The Irene Diamond Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. For info or tickets call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org