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Heartless
By Sam Shepard
Signature Theatre
480 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 244-7529


The later plays of Sam Shepard donít supply the same thrills his early plays did. They lack the sensational fireworks he once proffered habitually, such as rock-and-roll combat, real livestock, mountains of corn, onstage urination, and so on. Such practical restraint may be an understandable adjunct of aging. In any case, his better later plays have remained powerful because of their haunting stories and strangely sexy characters. The problem (if one can call it that) has cropped up when Shepard has occasionally lost touch with the intuitive relationship to action and language that made him a major voice. He has sometimes trafficked in ideas without fully believing in them, one might say.

Heartless, the new Shepard play directed by Daniel Aukin at Signature Theatre, is late Shepard at its best. Its themes of rootlessness and desperation for love and space will be familiar to anyone who knows this author, but the way the play moves, sounds and feels is a delight because it is driven in all important respects by intuition. The deliberately enigmatic story is about what happens when a 65-year-old guy (Roscoe, played by Gary Cole) comes to stay in a house full of four women at the invitation of Sally, the beautiful youngest daughter. A famous professor and media star, Roscoe has just left his wife, but his circumstantial lostness is nothing compared with the appalling existential abyss beneath the women.

It would give away too much to say more. The important point is the marvel of the playís innumerable oddball shifts and detours based on image, sound and association rather than conscious thought. Not all the characters are living, one has had a heart transplant, and the women rarely bother to explicate the thick tensions that make them seethe, snap and gripe at one another. The cast is exquisite, with every one of the actresses (Claire Van der Boom, Jenny Bacon, Betty Gilpin and Lois Smith) adding a distinct color to the rich, unanswerable questions at the playís core. Heartless is no easy experience, but its difficult pleasures are many, lingering and weighty.

 

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