I have seen three fine plays this week and can't help but notice their common bonds. All three plays involve an ascent into a spiritual darkness from which the characters do not fully escape. All three plays mix realism with the symbolic and/or the surreal. I should add that all three are brilliantly acted, directed and designed -- and that all three are produced on 42nd Street West of 9th Avenue. There is no question that Playwrights Horizons and the Signature Center are the premiere theaters in New York right now in every way including audience amenities. The New York TIMES today had an article extolling Playwrights Horizon's as the theater doing the most interesting work this season. I would add the Signature. When I look at the coming season, everything I am particularly excited to see is west of 8th Avenue.
HEARTLESS places us in Sam Shepard territory, haunting and surreal. The play begins with a horrific scream. It is a while before we realize who is the source of that scream. We're in the Los Angeles hills again as in TRUE WEST, another play with a powerful but enigmatic matriarch (mothers are as important as fathers in Shepard), but we're also in Sam Shepard country where relationships are never easily defined. Roscoe (Gary Cole), an expert on Cervantes and Borges (an early modern and modernist writer who share only their Spanish language), has left his family and has been invited by Sally (Julianne Nicholson) to stay in the Los Angeles home Sally shares with her mother, her older sister and her mother's supposedly silent nurse. Sally is hungry for a relationship with a man, though Roscoe sees her as a friend. At an early age Sally's heart gave out and she was given the heart of a young girl who died in an accident. Sally has felt strongly her possession of an alien heart and feels an odd kinship to its dead (?) owner. While Sally initially welcomes Roscoe, her bitter sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon) and her mother, Mable (the magnificent Lois Smith), are much less cordial. Both abuse various drugs and both are mercuric, to put it mildly. Mable's nurse (Betty Gilpin) supposedly has chosen not to speak, but at various times utters agonized and agonizing cried of pain. Roscoe finds that he can not get his bearings in this household where he is alternately interrogated and hectored by Sally's mother and sister. Wheelchair bound Mable sees herself as a dutiful mother, protecting her children as a mother must, but she is also detached and self-absorbed.
As the play progresses, things become more dreamlike and identities blur. Is the nurse also the spirit of the dead girl whose heart beats inside Sally? Why does bitter Lucy suddenly become manic, longing for escape? What does Roscoe really want? Here is another play in which the denouement is both surprising and totally justified by what went before. Like Edward Albee, Shepard isn't a big believer in familial love, despite the family ideals preached by the matriarch. Families are battlegrounds, sometimes fights to the death. The scenes between the sisters and between mother and daughters are riddled with conflicts. What do these family members want of Roscoe? When he decides to leave, they do everything to stop him, but suddenly change their minds.
Some reviewers have criticized Daniel Aukin's production for being too surreal -- not realistic enough. They don't understand Shepard or this play. Shepard is always surreal. Even when he describes a realistic setting, he want the audience to know that it is a setting, that the realism is merely a convention and a provisional one at that. The epigraph to this production (from Shepard or Aukin? Not that it matters) is from absurdist Eugene Ionesco, "everything does indeed seem to be shadow and evanescence." Aukin rightfully sees this as a poetic play. Eugene Lee's all black unit set allows for extreme separation of the characters. The entire cast is superb, catching the eerie mood of the play and the anguish of the characters.
HEARTLESS by Sam Shepard Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.