Thursday, February 11, 2016

New York Review: HEARTLESS

New York Review: HEARTLESS



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


More than three decades ago, Sam Shepard said this:

“I feel that language is a veil holding demons and angels which the characters are always out of touch with.  Their quest in the play is the same as ours in life—to find those forces to meet them face to face and end the mystery.”

He’s still at it. Shepard’s  new play, Heartless, in world premiere at Signature Theatre in New York, demonstrates again that the mystery will not end.  Your tolerance for unsolved—unsolvable-- mystery will be the gauge of how much you like this play.

Being a card-carrying Shepard fan, I was deeply intrigued and moved, but I spoke to people (and overheard others) who were deeply irked.

The sound design (Eric Shimelonis) is pure Shepard: dogs, cars,  and silence.

The lighting design (Tyler Micoleau) is pure Shepard: bright spotlights to black.

The set design (Eugene Lee) is pure Shepard:  wooden planks, messy beds, jokey faux California palm trees.

But the gender makeup of the outstanding cast is surprising: four women and one man. This is not the expected Shepard guy play, and, as Daniel Aukin, who directs, said, “this play comes from a very surprising place in Sam—it just surfaced….it poured out of him.”

Heartless  begins with a scream.

A young woman, Sally (Julianne Nicholson), is lying on a bed naked except for her panties. This will turn out to be important since there is no trace of the scar that her mother (the formidable Lois Smith) mentions; later we’ll have a brief glimpse of the sexy mute nurse (Betty Gilpin—a spectacular screamer) with a shocking red line bisecting her chest. There is another daughter, Sally’s sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon), drab and desperate.  Roscoe (Gary Cole), a married literature professor more than twice Sally’s age, is the lover/visitor. There is much talk of husbands and fathers abandoning their families.

In the course of various emotional explosions, everyone will depart? disappear? were they there in the first place? leaving Sally and her wheelchair-bound, Shakespeare-quoting mother alone. We learn that Sally was born with “aortic incompetence” – a malfunctioning heart. The play’s title suddenly seems both literal and figurative.

There are great, tantalizing lines like, “Another fable in the Los Angeles canon of hysterical imaginings,” which may be a description of the play itself. Or of the entire Shepard canon.

A word about the venue which opened in January: Signature Theatre’s new home,  the gorgeous Pershing Square Center was designed by Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most admired architects. There are four theatres, a bookstore, a café, a media wall, and a concierge desk, all within an airy, comfy and elegant space. It is the finest imaginable addition to the New York theatre.


The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St (near 10th Ave.) Through September 30. Tickets $75. Information: or 212-244-7529

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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