TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: “Heartless”
Iconic American playwright Sam Shepard returns to New York with a world premiere play set in a troubling Los Angeles limbo of abandoned spouses, dark family secrets and a mute nurse with the scariest silent scream since Munch.
“Mr. Shepard has said all this before, and with more dramatic urgency and clarity.” New York Times
“Your tolerance for unsolved—unsolvable– mystery will be the gauge of how much you like this play.” Philadelphia Inquirer
“…ethereal and discomfiting new play set in a Los Angeles house haunted by five lost souls.” Entertainment Weekly
“What Heartless reinforces is that we’re all lost, in various stages of decay and disrepair. Characteristically, Shepard finds the dark humor in this quandary.” USA Today
Mizer’s Two Cents: As I was leaving the Signature Theatre Center, I overheard a stylishly dressed, impeccably coiffed older theater goer turn to her companion and say of this play, “I’m glad the actors were having so much fun because I have no idea what the hell was going on.”
She has a point but it’s not necessarily a negative review. Your reaction to Shepard’s latest will depend a lot on your need for something stable to which to cling. Even though I wasn’t sure what had happened in the end (though I had lots of thoughts), I was never less than engaged by the free-floating nightmarish quality of the play, punctuated by earthily funny patches of dialogue. (A favorite: ” You’d be amazed how a Dairy Queen will change your entire attitude.” I want that on a t-shirt.) The evening seems to be cartwheeling across a greased tightrope, any minute you are sure it’s going to topple to its death but it keeps spinning forward nonetheless. It may not make logical sense but it has an entertaining, poetic non-sense that skitters close by, if not directly to the heart of, emotional meaning.
Meanwhile, a friend I ran into at the theater was frustrated by a lack of human or narrative signposts, leaving her to tune out by the end of the evening. She also questioned whether it was a bit old-fashioned (“it’s so 70’s”) in its use of symbolism and absurdist tropes. Interesting or pretentious, it’s certainly different than most current New York fare.
What I think we all can agree on is the compelling cast, navigating the seismic tonal shifts with skill. The legendary Lois Smith, reliably cantankerous and commanding, may be the marquee name but it’s three younger actresses who particularly impress. Jenny Bacon mines an unexpected vein of deep laughs with her portrayal of the sad, sardonic caretaker sister. Betty Gilpin, stylized and yet strangely real, brings terrifying emotional acuity to what could be just an over-the-top “oogy boogy” role as a mysterious nurse. And Julianne Nicholson, though purposefully cold at first, warms subtly to reveal the pain of someone who believes her life may not be worth saving.