Sean Penn and Nick Nolte take to the stage |


Sean Penn and Nick Nolte take to the stage

A new Sam Shepard play attracts major Hollywood talent -- and a ticket buying frenzy

Sean Penn, Nick Nolte

(Nolte and Penn: Jan Bauer/AP)

The San Francisco Chronicle called this local theatrical production ”the hottest ticket in America.” Under almost any other circumstances, such a comment would be dismissed as hometown hyperbole. But that may actually be an understatement when it comes to the veeeeery sold out five week run of Sam Shepard’s new play. ”The Late Henry Moss” premiered last Tuesday at the 750 seat Theatre on the Square with a we must be dreaming cast of actors rarely or never seen onstage. Sean Penn and Nick Nolte play a pair of highly volatile, battlin’ brothers, while Woody Harrelson and Cheech Marin provide the comic relief. Even the guy noodling on the guitar in the corner, T-Bone Burnett, is something of a legend.

When tickets for ”Henry Moss” went on sale last summer, they were gone almost instantly, mostly to San Franciscans who spent hundreds of dollars on an entire subscription series just to get a ”Moss” ducat. At this point, Ralph Nader stands a better chance of being declared president than a normal Joe does of scoring a seat, and even high powered Hollywood types may have to take out second mortgages on their souls to get in.

Nolte, who hasn’t done a stage play in 30 years, and Penn, whose last theater gig came in 1988, portray the surviving sons of the recently deceased title character – they’re brothers consumed by rage and alcohol, respectively, from growing up under a particularly ill tempered father. As with ”Buried Child,” or any number of other Shepard dramas, there are the familiar hallmarks: grotesquely dysfunctional families harboring big secrets, bumping up against unsuspecting bumpkins. Call it ”Unburied Dad”: Henry Moss’ shrouded corpse lies onstage for the first half; then this monster of a father comes alive in increasingly lengthy flashbacks. The actor playing him, James Gammon, earned a spontaneous burst of applause from the premiere audience after Moss’ first major vein popping tirade.

The plot, such as it is, centers on Penn’s attempts to uncover the circumstances of his less than beloved pop’s death. His increasing frustration leads to near fisticuffs with smoking and boozing older bro Nolte, whom Penn suspects – rightly, of course – of knowing more than he lets on. The second act is comic, bordering on slapstick, with Harrelson drawing big laughs as a slacker cab driver who comes to be psychologically terrorized by both Penn and, in flashback, Gammon. Poor Marin gets similarly menaced and then cuckolded. But the psychodrama gets less comedic and more harrowingly metaphysical toward the end of the three hour three acter (which reportedly ran 20 minutes longer in previews).

”Moss” has so far gathered almost no publicity in media centers like New York and L.A. Most of the celebs in attendance on Tuesday had some connection to the production (like Penn’s wife, Robin Wright Penn, and Marin’s ”Nash Bridges” costar, Don Johnson), or the area (Bay based director Philip Kaufman brought along his ”Quills” star Geoffrey Rush). Expect that to change quickly as word of mouth spreads south and east. But even high powered agents and managers may have to vie for tickets the same way as the general public: Twenty extra rush seats go on sale every day to prospective patrons who stand in line in Union Square to be entered in a lottery. Urgency is understandable: Though the play, which closes Dec. 17, is said to be headed for Broadway next year, it won’t be with this potent all star cast.

Penn, in particular, has been amusingly cast to type; Nolte, apologizing to other characters for his brother’s borderline violent behavior, describes him as someone who ”flies off the handle.” Those ominous signs outside the auditorium, warning patrons that anyone caught with a camera will be ejected, and any film ”confiscated and destroyed,” should seem more ominous than usual: Anyone dumb enough to think about sneaking in an Instamatic will do well to remember that ejection and destruction are the sort of duties that cameraphobic Penn has, in the past, not delegated to mere ushers.