Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Heartless at The Signature: Surrealist Black Comedy that Works

Sam Shepard’s new play, Heartless, at the Pershing Square Signature Theater Center is definitely not going to be everyone’s taste.  However, if you enjoy slightly surrealist black comedy, you could hardly do better.  There isn’t much of a plot, besides the exploration of family ties in a dysfunctional family.
Lois Smith as Mable Murphy in Heartless
Lois Smith plays Mable Murphy, the wheel chair bound matriarch of a Hollywood Hills family - with a view of the Valley, not the good side.  Mable enjoys suffering from old age, which is treated with pain pills and antidepressants.  With a full time nurse, and a daughter that dotes on her, Mable rules the roost.  Ms. Smith commands the stage with a presence just as Mable commands the house.
The one daughter who rebels is Sally, played by Julianne Nicholson.  When we first set eyes on her, we see a massive scar that runs the length of her torso.  She was recipient of a heart transplant when a child and her life has been influenced by it ever since.  She is always reminded of her physical fragility, but the experience also gives her emotional freedom to act on impulse, even callously, towards her family.
Sally has brought home a much older man who is going through what seems to be a mid-life crisis.  Gary Cole plays Roscoe, a sixty-something professor of Latin Literature, in the middle of a divorce.  Roscoe is the catalyst, who upsets the family dynamic by his presence.  But Roscoe doesn’t have any control over the situation.  Mr. Cole eloquently slides from smug to confused to resigned over the course of the play.
Gary Cole and Julianne Nicholson in Heartless
The “good daughter” is Lucy, played by Jenny Bacon.  This role is written a bit too broad; her anger and sarcasm too superficial. Ms. Bacon does good work trying to ground Lucy, but the character is too inconsistent to be totally believable.  The physical look of Lucy is too obvious and frumpy, and it is surprising since the rest of the design (costume, lighting and scenic) is excellent.
The final character is the nurse Elizabeth, played by Betty Gilpin.  It is Ms. Gilpin that brings the surreal to the reality, and then in the second half amps it up.  Ms. Gilpin and Lois Smith do a great job of walking the tightrope of tragedy and black comedy, firmly keeping the story from crashing out of control.
The Heartless' story locale and conversational asides constantly remind the audience of film and the movie industry.  Each of the female characters behaves as if they are starring in their private movie genre.  Gary Cole as Roscoe is alone in normality, and the question that presents itself; is he any better off?
Directed by Daniel Aukin, Heartless takes a while to settle into a rhythm – which is a function of the story.  If you can accept the artificial and unrealistic situations, Heartless is a crazy fun ride.  But be warned, many people don't enjoy that experience.
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Daniel Aukin
Cast: Jenny Bacon, Gary Cole, Betty Gilpin, Julianne Nicholson, Lois Smith

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