The silent agony of three women living in a cavernous home in Los Angeles is suddenly interrupted by the introduction of Roscoe (Gary Cole), a Cervantes professor who is working on some sort of video project with the family’s youngest daughter, Sally (Julianne Nicholson). The home has no patriarch—”Whitmore” left years ago—and Roscoe himself has recently abandoned his wife and children at the late age of sixty-five. Sally, cold, verbally brutal, is still recovering emotionally from a heart transplant she had as a child (a deep scar runs from her collar bone to her naval), while her older sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon), takes care of their fading mother, Mable (Lois Smith). There is a nurse, Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin), who shares Sally’s scar and is possibly a physical manifestation of her donor, a murder victim whose killer was never found.
There is more than a little Pinter to Heartless, Sam Shepard’s new play currently running at the Irene Diamond Stage, and like the former’s masterpiece No Man’s Land, the landscape here is both specific and vague; the characters are caught in a space they can’t quite define at a time of which they are unsure. For Pinter’s characters, “England” was an important physical and symbolic point of location—here, it is “America.” But while references to Roy Rogers, James Dean, and Facebook may seem like signposts, their randomness and incompatibility in fact work to further obscure the action. Even individual personalities become fluid and interchangeable, particularly Sally’s and Elizabeth’s, and at one point, a suicide (one of the more startling deaths I have seen in the theater) is quietly carried out upstage, without any further acknowledgment from the author, as the character in question later reappears for a final scene. Appropriately, the house is surrounded by blue smog; the house is literally concealed by a phenomenon that is physically impossible. Of course, these surrealist, national, and familial interests are present in Mr. Shepard’s previous work as well as Pinter’s, and Mable’s declaration that the long-gone Whitmore was “everyone’s father” recalls the men in Buried Child—absent and impotent, stand-ins for America itself.
Heartless, then, looks and sounds like a Shepard play. It smells like one, and it bears a superficial resemblance to Buried Child, his best work, but something is missing: drive, perhaps, or passion. Mable’s monologues in particular feel leaden and obvious, far too transparently theatrical—in an early scene, for example, when she muses about how the difference between mothers and fathers: “Unconditional loyalty. When you come right down to it. That’s what we secretly pray for, day in and day out … Someone blind to all our faults. Who only sees the Angel in us—the benevolent creature. Mothers, for instance … Absolutely. Toward their children—their own kind. Unconditional love. Not fathers so much—fathers are a whole different bag of worms … You could be a cold-blooded killer and your mother would forgive you … Slaughter innocent bystanders in broad daylight. Decapitate infants with a Bowie knife. Slice open their tender bowels—pull out their purple squirming intestines and eat them raw. Your mother would forgive you. Not the father, though. No. The father would be full of judgment and condemnation. Contempt. He would be the Prosecutor—the Hangman, divorcing himself entirely from all blood-connection. He would disown you.” While ostensibly addressing Roscoe, this seems to be aimed more at the young literary student in the audience eager to underline metaphors and symbolism in his copy of the script.
And while Ms. Nicholson does a wonderful job with her part—her childish agony can be very affecting—in general, the actors seem to just be going through the motions; it’s like watching those scenes in movies where people are attending a play instead of actually attending one yourself. This is not vintage Shepard, but ersatz Shepard, and contains none of the real sense of dread, none of the riveting, honest violence that has made his such an unmistakable and invaluable voice in our theater.