There are skeletons in the closet, under the bed, and behind the couch in Heartless, Sam Shepard’s ethereal and discomfiting new play set in a Los Angeles house haunted by five lost souls.
Roscoe (Talladega Nights’ Gary Cole) is the male interloper, a 65-year-old professor of Cervantes who left his wife and has been shacking up with Sally (Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Julianne Nicholson), a deeply troubled young woman less than half his age. Complicating matters is Sally’s repressed sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon), and their bellicose, wheelchair-bound mother, Mable (True Blood’s Lois Smith), who begrudgingly welcome Roscoe into their house of psychological horrors. The fifth and final member of this ”family,” is Mable’s mute, Valkyrian nurse (Betty Gilpin), who spends much of the play as a silent spectator to the family’s internecine viciousness.
Each is unsettling in her own way, like Tennessee Williams characters left on the counter for so long they’ve started to curdle. While every conversation seems to be a battleground, Mable holds most of the weapons. Supposedly pumped full of pain medication, her mind is still a whetted straight razor that she wields with glee, and her appearance — gnarled beneath her shawls, but constantly enraged — is almost frightening. There’s an aura of Gothic decay running throughout the play which, coupled with its abstract supernaturalism and soap operaish revelations, makes it feel like a particularly literary episode of Dark Shadows.
The title refers to Sally, who bears a long, angry cicatrix down the middle of her torso as well as guilt from having received a transplanted heart from a murdered girl. But it also refers to all the characters’ interactions: There’s very little empathy here. The house is less a domicile than a prison — or, given scenic designer Eugene Lee’s spare, boundary-less set, someplace less concrete and more insidious.
And yet there are still some moments that are oddly touching, like Mable’s (real? false?) remembrance an encounter with James Dean. The speech — delivered beautifully by Smith, who herself co-starred with Dean over half a century ago in East of Eden — tugs on the play’s thematic strand of innocence lost, even if that strand isn’t then threaded into something larger and identifiable. There’s something dark and alluring about the tapestry Shepard weaves, but it’s a bit hard to tell what it is we’re supposed to be looking at. B
(Tickets: www.signaturetheatre.org or 212-244-7529)