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A CurtainUp Review
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I want to come to life
I do
I do
I want to come alive
I do
I do
This swimming in the dark
Is tearing me apart
I want to come to life
I do
I do
— Liz
Betty Gilpin and Lois Smith
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sam Shepard may be at the point in life where he's eligible for social security, but don't count on his having settled into easy, entertainment mode. Heartless may not be his best play— surely you can't expect a busy double tasker (actor as well as playwright) to hit home runs every time or to change his modus operandi — dark, enigmatic explorations of dysfunctional families.

His senior citizen status has clearly made Shepard very much aware of the grim reaper's hovering presence. In fact, death is as much a character in Heartless as the never seen dog belonging to the only male in the 5-member cast. That shift from focusing on dysfunctional males (battling brothers, abandoning fathers) to females has two not very sisterly sisters and an angry mother at the center of this new play. If there's one word that defines them as well as the other characters (including the never seen dog), it's abandonment.

Despite its disappointing aspects, Heartless — mainly that the pieces of this dramatic puzzle don't really add up to top tier Shepard — the familiar Shepardesque elements are all there. Instead of a food, fight we get some gross but amusing business involving jelly donuts and a scene in which the contents of a suitcase get spilled, re-packed, spilled again. There's also a supernatural touch. The cast is outstanding enough to make even the slow and pause heavy scenes interesting to watch. There's some potent dialogue, especially from the terrific Lois Smith's Mabel, and Jenny Bacon's dowdy but often funny Lucy. Daniel Aukin's laid-back direction and Eugene Lee's dark, minimalist scenery for a Hollywood Hills house on a cliff overlooking the ocean, reflect the playwright's face to face with the abyss.

Shepard doesn't do a Hercules Poirot or Agatha Christie in any of his plays. He leaves it to the audience to come to their own conclusions about how all the clues he tosses out fit together. But Heartless, though even more muddled than usual, isn't as hopelessly hard to figure out as some of the play's nay-sayers have suggested. You just have to pay close attention and as Mable at one point tells the play's one man and the outsider whose arrival serves as the trigger to blow the lid off the buried familial grievances "Get the wax out of your ears, Roscoe. Listen up!" If you listen up and look carefully, the clues to who is actually who, real or unreal, are everywhere.

For starters, there's the title which fairly early on reveals its connection to the scar that covers the length of sister Sally's (Julianne Nicholson) body that she hasn't bothered to explain to Roscoe (Gary Cole) the 65- year-old literature professor who's become more than the subject of a documentary she's filming since he abandoned his wife and children. More slowly and symbolically revealed is Sally's connection to Liz (Betty Gilpin), the demanding Mable's nurse who's mute for most of the two acts, except when she bursts out in eerie primal screams. Even Liz's running on that cliff and return to the house with bloody feet is not so impenetrably symbolic if you really "listen up."

There's even a song (the lyrics quoted above this review) and the quotes with which Shepard prefaced his script: Nabokov's “What moment in the gradual decay Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?” and Ionesco's ”. . .everything does indeed seem to me to be shadow and evanescence. My head spins with anguish. Really, that is the world: a desert of fading shadows.”

The situation is most reminiscent of Shepard's superior Buried Child in that the decay in Mable Murphy and her daughters' lives began with Sally's childhood heart transplant (the heart belonging to a murdered girl her own age) and the father's desertion. While Heartless doesn't have the sinister spark of that play, Lois Smith's lengthy monologue does provide some of that play's lyricism. It's spiced with Shakespeare references and Shepardian landscape symbols like a poster of James Dean whose movie Mable was watching when she fell out of a tree and into her wheelchair bound dependency (and a colleague of Lois Smith during her early acting career).

By the time the mute Liz is singing the song quoted at the top of this review and Roscoe has abandoned his dog along with the crazy scene of which he wants no part, you'll still be left with gaps in Shepard's puzzle play. And so, if you're looking for your characters and plot neatly tied up, Heartless is not for you, but then that's likely to be true even for Shepard in masterpiece mode as in True West and Buried Child.

Director Aukins has apparently streamlined the running time for the play to clock in at under two hours. Another judicioua round of trims wouldn't be a bad idea.

For more about Sam Shepard with links to other plays by him that we've reviewed, see our Shepard Backgrounder

By Sam Shepard
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Cast: Jenny Bacon (Lucy), Gary Cole (Roscoe), Betty Gilpin (Elizabeth, referred to as Liz), Julianne Nicholson (Sally) and Lois Smith (Mable Murphy)
Scenic Design: Eugene Lee
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Tyler Micoleau
Sound: Eric Shimelonis
Hair and Make-Up: Ashley Ryan
Movement Specialist: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: Donald Fried
RunningTime: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission
Irene Diamond Stage, Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues 212-244-7529
All tickets for the initial run of the production are $25
From 8/07/12; opening 8/27/12; closing 9/16/12--extended before opening to 9/30/12.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on September 4th
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