Heartless, in many ways, is vintage Sam Shepard—a surreal, cubist kind of family drama with enigmatic characters, nods to iconic imagery and dialogue studded with non sequiturs that take the play into the realm of black comedy.
It shows that even though Mr. Shepard is close to 70, he is still absorbed by the bitterness and hopelessness of life and by characters more prickly than a dog on a hot porch. He’s still pondering a uniquely American loneliness as hard as a blank stare and people wrapped in isolation even when sharing a room or a bed.
In Heartless, the hallmarks of Mr. Shepard’s work are all present and accounted for: the atonal riffing on various metaphysical unknowns, the deadpan absurdist touches, the ruminations on the infernal mystery of women and the coyote howl of lost youth and waning faculties.
The play is set in the hills of L.A. at an estate with a view. Sally (Margot White, a last-minute replacement for the cast actress Robyn Cohen) arrives home with her much older boyfriend in tow, Roscoe (Michael Cullen), a sixtyish Cervantes professor who has left his wife and family behind in Kentucky. He’s a lost soul claimed by Sally after meeting on a talk show, and where else do you go after that in modern times but a reality show?
Sally proposes filming his every move and reaction and Roscoe goes along, but it is plain to see that the constant verité is grinding his nerves.
Roscoe’s offering of hot coffee and jelly doughnuts briefly charm Sally, but have the opposite effect on Mabel (Kathleen Butler), the roaring, raconteur-ish, wheelchair-bound mother, and Lucy (Cassie Beck), the drab and oddly out-of-time older sister, rather like Laura without the glass menagerie. The group is completed by the mysterious nurse Liz (Susannah Hoffman), an icy, classic Hitchcock blond.
Runs in repertory
through July 28
Contemporary American Theater Festival
Frank Center Stage
260 University Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and tickets
This is the sort of play where someone steps outside for some fresh air and remarks “I’d like to gaze into the abyss awhile,” where a character goes for a run and returns with bloody feet, which she ritualistically cleans on the terrace without a single word of explanation, or women burst into snippets of modern opera usually favored by director Peter Sellars. You don’t know who is dead or alive, since people jump off steep roofs and saunter onstage a few minutes later miraculously unharmed and apparently everyone has the ability to chin-wag with the departed.
Ed Herendeen, to his credit, does not even try to corral this assemblage of determined weirdness—even though it does give the sense that the actors are just out there flailing around all by their lonesome and trying to make sense of it all. He just lets the action unfold in a series of spare parts that never quite come together. Not that it matters in Mr. Shepard’s rangy, surreal landscape of losers and the lost.
For a play ostensibly about the heart, you are not exactly left at the end reeling with emotion. There is too much of the brain in Heartless, and another organ as well, since you get the distinct feeling that ultimately, Mr. Shepard is wanking with the audience and laughing his butt off in the wings.
Heartless by Sam Shepard . Directed by Ed Herendeen . Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.