10 September 2012

'Heartless'

I don’t know why it worked out this way, but my frequent theater companion Diana and I saw our first play in the Signature Theatre Company’s 2012-13 season before the last play in our subscription for 2011-12. We’ll see Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver on 7 September, but we were at the Irene Diamond Stage in the Pershing Square Signature Center on Friday evening, 31 August, for the world première production of Sam Shepard’s Heartless. I’m afraid that the experience was disappointing, especially upon reflecting on the début of last season, an exciting and revealing performance of Fugard’s Blood Knot (see my report of 28 February on ROT). (Last season, Diana and I took our four-play subscription out for the company’s Residency One series, three plays by Fugard, plus the single Legacy Program presentation, Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque, reported on ROT on 19 March. This season, Residency One is devoted to the work of David Henry Hwang and Diana decided to go with the four Legacy presentations, of which Heartless is the first. I’m going to try to see the three Hwang plays in the season as well, so keep in touch for reports on those as the season develops.)

Heartless, a two-hour play with one intermission, started previews at the Signature’s year-old complex on 42nd Street at 10th Avenue on 7 August and opened to the press on Monday, the 27th. Its original closing was scheduled for 16 September, but the play has been extended now through 30 September. The Diamond is the largest of the three stages at the Signature Center, a 299-seat proscenium formerly called the End Stage. (I reported on the architecture and construction of the new complex in “The Signature Center,” 18 February.) Shepard, who was the focus of the Signature’s 1996-97 season and whose The Late Henry Moss premièred in the company’s Tenth Anniversary Season, 2001-02, says that he began writing Heartless at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, which the playwright describes as “a think tank trying to find if there’s an inner dialogue between different pursuits: science and art and within science itself . . . .” Shepard and novelist Cormac McCarthy are they only writers in residence at the institute where, he says, he has “dialogues” with the scientists but writes on his own.

The Heartless story’s about a cranky, but shrewd invalided old lady, Mable Murphy, who lives in a huge house in the Hollywood Hills overlooking Los Angeles where she’s cared for by her elder daughter, Lucy, and her mute nurse, Elizabeth. Sally, Mable’s younger daughter comes to stay for a while, bringing Roscoe, her much-older lover. The family tensions and the presence of a stranger open cracks out of which spurt some family facts—or purported facts—that aren’t usually talked about. Shepard says he was inspired to write Heartless when he was in L.A. “really high up and you can see the entire city,” which Mable calls “the abyss.” “You feel like you’re not exactly of the city,” the playwright explains. “You’re outside it.” He continues:

Then I’d been thinking for a long time about wanting to write an intrinsically female play, with female characters. I was staying in a place where until very recently there had been a dowager—an old woman—who had been there for a long, long time, who died. And she was being cared for by many different people. I never met her, but that played a part in it.

Shepard began to “mess” with the plot elements to assemble what he saw as “a funny tapestry.” One of the secrets that’s revealed is that Sally had a heart transplant when she was ten—at the very start of the play, Sally gets out of bed bare-breasted, revealing the long, red, as-yet-unexplained scar—and Shepard had begun to wonder about “this in-between world that someone might find themselves in if they had a heart transplant.” He imagined that “if you were walking around with somebody else’s heart, it’s likely that you would have thoughts of the other person and what that person’s life might have been like. So it puts the possessor of the new heart in a funny relationship to the donor who’s, of course, dead, but always with them.” That, the playwright proclaimed, was the concept that launched Heartless, whose title in part refers to this idea. It sounds to me as if his intended theme is an examination of the “in-between existence where you have the sensation that we’re somehow between life and death. And maybe the dead are even around in a way we don’t understand.”

Well, all that certainly sounds intriguing: a little mystical, a little philosophical, a little spooky—not to mention the melodrama of the revelations of the family secrets. The trouble I had, however, was that Heartless doesn’t end up being any of those things. When we left the theater, Diana characterized the play as “simplistic.” I said that wouldn’t have been the adjective I’d have chosen and asked her what she meant. The play, she explained, was scattered, a bunch of uncooked ideas all thrown haphazardly into the pot. Okay, that may be, but though Diana wouldn’t give Shepard any credit for having had an idea or theme from which to work, I decided, this being Sam Shepard and not some first-time baby dramatist who didn’t know his beans, that I’d allow that he had some point in mind but just never got it into the script intelligibly. Simply put, I have no idea what Shepards trying to tell me. (One reviewer says the play explores “the human failure to connect with one another.” Not only is that awfully broad, the basic theme, I’d say, of most modern dramas, but even if “failure to connect” is on display, it’s not really explored.) Now, that’s a pretty major flaw, I’d say. When I taught writing, it was a cardinal sin to fail to make your point clear; an even greater sin was not to have a point. That's the whole reason for writing an essay or a report. I feel the same about a play: it’s got to say something. (For those who’ve read my theater reports before, you know that criterion number two is that a good play makes that point in a theatrical manner.) Shepard doesn’t admit to not having a point, but he does say, “It always confuses me a little bit when people ask what a play is about.” This is how he explains his approach:

A good play has resonance. Ideas come without you forcing them. Saying “I’m going [to] write a play about the Civil War,” or “I’m going write a play about Republicans or Democrats” . . . it’s so boring. But, on the other hand, when you let things go—when you allow the characters and you allow the situation to have a life of its own—things come.

He continues along this line, describing how the content of the play just develops out of “the predicament and the situation,” and the writer’s there “to help it along,” but not by “bringing [an outside idea] . . . into the room and saying let’s write a play” about it. My observation, however, that this form of freewriting (or maybe Shepard would see it as what the Surrealists called automatic writing) just results in a jumble of vaguely connected ideas and thoughts. As a writing exercise, a way to get the juices flowing, it works initially, but the writer then has to do more than “help it along”; he has to get in there and shape, edit, revise, cut, winnow, and develop. I think he has to point it at something, getting at the center the way Michelangelo said he got to the sculpture that’s hidden within a block of marble—by chiseling away everything that isn’t part of it. Not doing that is a form of self-indulgence and gets you nowhere creatively. As Frank Scheck of the New York Post bluntly puts it, “[N]othing really happens beyond Shepard’s usual blend of magical realism and heavy-handed symbolism” and “what it all means is anybody’s guess.” Shepard acknowledges that he reshaped the drafts of the script—but maybe he was just too enamored of what Jack Kerouac called “spontaneous bop prosody” to do enough shaping and pointing.

But lack of a clear point isn’t the only problem I have with Heartless. There are two other biggies: first, the play’s contrived and second, it deliberately obfuscates. That last is $25 word that means it keeps secrets. (I’ll work backwards and get to the contrivance issue in a bit. Stick around.) Now, Harold Pinter made a career out of writing plays that keep secrets from the audience—and those who’ve gotten to know me some by now know that I have serious difficulties with Pinter because of this. But Pinter was a past master at obscurantism and he used the tactic to create tension and insert an element of threat and menace into this plays, for which he was also famous. He was better at it than . . . well, everybody, including Shepard. Nevertheless, it makes me feel manipulated and annoys the crap out of me. It’s a game the playwright plays and we have no say in it. If I’m being annoyed, then I’m not really getting into the play. In fact, I feel as if I’m being tossed out of it. So I sat through the entire first act of Heartless wondering what was going on and why Shepard was keeping secrets from me for what seemed to me to be no good reason. It was as if everyone on stage were taking the Lord Voldemort/He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named gambit far too seriously. (Of course, in Harry Potter, everyone knows who He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is and, what’s more, it’s a children’s story.) So, I began sneaking surreptitious peeks at my watch about 45 minutes into the hour-long first act—and that ain’t a good sign.

The issue of contrivance is pretty straightforward. An awful lot of the plot devices seemed set up to me. In this case, Shepard isn’t manipulating the audience, but the characters, making them do things they have no business doing in order to make the story go the way he wants it to. I’ll give you one illustration. In act two, when Roscoe’s had enough of being bashed one way then another by all the women in the house, he decides to leave. Now, Roscoe’s a college prof of Spanish lit specializing in Cervantes and Borges. I assume Shepard wants us to know he’s not stupid. He may be a little “lost in the woods”—he’s left his wife and children (though not his dog, which he’s brought along) and is tagging along with Sally because he has nowhere else to go—but he’s not slow. So he pulls out a suitcase and starts filling it with his few belongings, stashed under his bed. No sooner has he gotten a few books and bits of clothing into the suitcase than one of the women comes over and grabs it and dumps the contents on the floor. He’s stunned for a moment, but he starts again, picking up the strewn clothes and tossing them back into the suitcase. Whadaya think—another of the women crosses up, grabs the bag, and dumps it again. He starts over, and the third woman starts to approach him and we all know what she’s going to do—but what does Roscoe do? Guard the bag? Hold onto it as he picks up his stuff? No. He goes on picking up the scattered clothes, leaving the suitcase vulnerable—and sure enough, she grabs it and dumps it out again. It’s all set up so that Roscoe can be maltreated by all three women, look like a zhlub, and end up leaving without his things so we can see he’s been defeated. The play’s full of bits like that. Roscoe’s dog (unseen but heard off stage) serves no real purpose except to be left behind when Roscoe goes so Sally and Mable can have a conversation about what to do with it and what a dead dog smells like. The dog’s a McGuffin written into the play for the sole purpose of setting up the final dialogue.

Now, all this would be bad enough in terms of dramaturgy. But Shepard states that the play grew organically, without planning or shaping by him. “I’m always looking for the play that writes itself,” he says. “And I think Heartless comes as close as anything I’ve ever written to being a play that writes itself, in the sense that moment by moment you are not guiding it and trying to put it through its acrobatics.” Obviously, I can’t speak for the way Shepard felt as he composed his play, but his assertion conflicts diametrically with what I saw on the Diamond stage that Friday night. The author also acknowledges, however, that the script went through “three definitive drafts” of which only “the first 10 pages” remained from his earliest version. Somewhere during those “many transformations,” apparently, those perceived contrivances and manipulations sneaked in.

With one exception, the acting isn’t remarkable, but my impression is that the direction sabotaged the actors’ efforts. Daniel Aukin, the 41-year-old former artistic director of Soho Rep (1998-2006), is what the New York Times labeled “a furiously in-demand New York stage director.” He’s been working at many of the rep companies here in New York as well as at troupes all over the country—it’s a wonder I haven’t caught one of his productions before now, though I’ll be making up for that deficiency later in the fall a little. Aukin’s directing Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America in November, the second play in the Atlantic Theater Company’s new season, which I’ll be seeing in December, and Joshua Elias Harmon’s Bad Jews at the Roundabout Underground in October. Some directors like to allow the actors to experiment in early rehearsals and give them room to fail and then try something else before locking them into a performance. When you have the luxury to experiment, it’s beneficial to follow Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The tactic, however, can be counterproductive if allowed to go on too long or to proceed without any input from the director. It can cross the line into self-indulgence or aimlessness, and Aukin has been characterized as “a man of few words” on the set. (One director I knew followed this improvisational process but discovered occasionally that he’d spent “four weeks chasing this rabbit down the hole.”) And though New York magazine’s Scott Brown found it an enjoyable experience, he describes the result the way I saw it (with less pleasure): Aukin “has no idea what to do with the trunkful of body-parts Shepard has parked in his driveway, so he gives his fantastically hambone ensemble free reign.”

Aukin takes this exploratory process a step further, it seems. He wants his actors to fail: “Daniel really wants you to make mistakes,” explains Julianne Nicholson, who plays Sally in Heartless. His intention, according to a writer whose play Aukin directed in 2008, is “to explore the farthest emotional or dramatic boundaries of a scene.” Shepard says, “He allows the actor to set sail. Then he finds where it’s necessary to cut back.” Aukin says that he’s looking for the “room between those places” which have to be staged in a specific way, the room where he can bring his vision to bear. In a New York Times profile of the director, Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote that Aukin “has few contemporary rivals in finding texture and resonance in a play’s stillness and silence,” which may account for all the artificial Pinterisms that bothered me so much in the production. There were lots of pauses, which Ben Brantley called “air-devouring” in the New York Times, but they never felt organic whether Shepard put them in or the director inserted them. In the end, it seems to me that what we have is an unfocused, diffuse script staged by a director who likes to let his actors explore their own impulses, potentially to the extreme, and then focus on the holes. Maybe that works for Aukin more often than not—I may find out a little better in December—but it seems to have compounded the innate problems of Heartless. He was so focused on the silences and stillnesses, an already disjointed script just shatters along the fault lines.

Aukin’s directing raises questions about the acting in this production, as I hinted earlier. Aside from Lois Smith, who portrays Mable, no one in the cast is believable or really convincing in the fraught situation Shepard created. In the Daily News Joe Dziemianowicz characterizes the acting as “all over the map—tinny and flat to too declamatory.” Granted, the roles and the circumstances are tough to grip, even if an actor approaches them as absurdist or surreal, but the director’s supposed to provide guidance and help in entering the universe of the play. Failing that, an actor has to find her own resources to negotiate the script, but there needs to be a commitment to something the actor gets hold of to anchor the performance in that universe. Only Smith, whom I’ve now seen a number of times on stage in different kinds of roles (not to mention several TV and film performances), manages to inhabit a world within the play. The other four cast members all seem tentative and uncertain. The most inadequate is Gary Cole as Roscoe, the lone male on stage. I’d never seen Cole on stage before—his program bio doesn’t list many stage credits and only one in New York—so I mostly know his work from television where my impression of him has been that he’s a lightweight with not much range or depth. My opinion of him based on Heartless hasn’t changed. When Roscoe hesitates in answering questions about his literary specialties, I had the impression he was faking his credentials. But it isn’t Roscoe who’s faking—it’s Cole. The first thing I noticed is that when some of those many pauses occur early in the play, and they come after his lines—he just stops speaking. No one has interrupted him, no thought seems to have made him pause, there’s no logic behind the silence that I could see. He just runs out of words and waits. Like there’d been a stage direction. The script told him to stop. Or the director. The first time Cole did this, I thought, ‘Oh, a bit of bad timing. What a shame.’ But then he kept on doing the same thing. No one else does that—at least not as bluntly. Even if it’s a conventional technique Shepard or Aukin put into the performance text, that should be communicated to us so we know how to read it. This just looks like bad acting to me.

Cole’s work is only the most salient of the four other cast members. None of them, including the three younger women (Nicholson’s Sally, Jenny Bacon’s Lucy, Betty Gilpin’s Elizabeth), seem to inhabit their characters or to have absorbed the situation. (And before anyone jumps in to ask, there’s nothing remotely Brechtian going on in Heartless. Phony Pinter, yes; Brecht, no.) Nicholson, who’s worked with Aukin at least twice before, comes the closest of the four, but even she seems a little adrift when Sally makes one of the sudden behavioural shifts that each of the young women makes at least once in the play. (I also know Nicholson’s work only from TV: among other roles, she was one of the later detectives on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.) Granted, the parts are written to defy easy logic, and from an acting perspective that’s a huge problem, but when, for instance, Roscoe decides it’s time for him to leave, Sally joins Lucy and Elizabeth in trying to prevent him from going in the suitcase-dumping scene. But she’s just been incensed with him because she caught him screwing the beautiful Elizabeth and has essentially thrown him out, so why does she want him to stay now? The switch comes out of nowhere and is unconvincing. (Lucy didn’t want Roscoe there in the first place, so why’s she trying to keep him around? And she eventually even leaves with him—a move that, curiously, can be justified as an escape from her servitude to her mother.) As straight-up Absurdism, the dog-leg turn might be justified theatrically, but the production hasn’t been played that way for the most part. Anyway, it’s not a dramaturgical explanation that’s lacking—intellectually I get that the women don’t really want Roscoe to leave—it’s an acting question, and Nicholson, no more than the rest of the younger characters, doesn’t make me believe Sally’s for real, whether I understand her motives or not. As for Gilpin’s nurse, Brantley says the part “isn’t really there” and that’s pretty accurate. We never do find out Elizabeth’s story—as if Shepard was planning to go somewhere with that but abandoned the idea—though it’s not the fault of Gilpin, who does a magnificent silent scream to rival Nancy Walker’s in Murder by Death. This is the first time that I can recall, by the way, that I’ve had problems with Signature acting, even in plays that I haven’t liked. I don’t know, though, if the acting seems so inadequate because I couldn’t get into the spirit of the play, or if I couldn’t get into the production because the actors aren’t fully invested in their roles and circumstances. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter in the end.

I’ve scrupulously tried to distinguish between the younger characters in Heartless and Mable Murphy, Lois Smith’s character. That’s because, as I’ve hinted, she pulls her quirky and even alienating character off with total conviction. Perhaps I’m just prejudiced because I’ve seen Smith in so many different roles over the past several years and I’ve liked every one of her performances immensely, so maybe I just don’t want her to fail even once. I don’t think so, though. Mable’s pretty nuts as well as being paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, but Smith negotiates each change, shift, lie, misconception, and rant with such commitment that no matter how far off the rails Shepard seems to have gone sometimes, Mable always rings true. I don’t care if her behaviour meets the standards of the shrinks’ rulebook or not, Smith makes me believe a real person’s up there. Unfortunately, she contrasts with the other performances around her, but Smith does her job even if the others fall short. (Nearly every review I read, save Scott Brown of New York, contends that Smith salvages the production from whatever failings the reviewer diagnoses.) Mable can be talking along, having what seems to be a rational, if idiosyncratic, conversation—really an interrogation, even a dissection—with Roscoe, and then turn on a dime and start ranting and yelling like a demented banshee—and it’s perfectly believable. I might wonder what set her off, but I’m never in doubt that there was something. That’s an actor’s job: I don’t have to know what a character’s up to as long as I know she’s up to something. (In a past play report, I said of the actress: “I don’t think Smith can deliver anything less than a credible and warm performance . . . .” By “warm,” of course, I meant ‘warm-blooded,’ ‘alive’—and I’m doubling down on that assessment here. At the risk of overpraising her, I think Lois Smith is an honest-to-God living national treasure.)

(I have to insert a wonderful—and irrelevant—little sidelight concerning Smith here. In one of Mable’s final speeches, she explains how she got paralyzed. We knew she fell out of a tree when she was younger, but we don’t know the circumstances; Mable’s daughters were both very young when it happened. It turns out that she’d climbed a pine tree to see into a drive-in theater to watch a James Dean movie. She describes the episode and a scene in the movie, and it’s clear—if you watch old movies on TV—that the film, which Mable doesn’t name, had been East of Eden from 1955. Shepard says that when he wrote that speech for Smith, he didn’t know one amazing coincidence: the actress made her film début in that movie when she was 25!)

My appraisal of the physical production is a split decision. Kaye Voyce’s costumes, which Back Stage describes as “subtly stylized,” are fine without being spectacular. Elizabeth’s crisp, white nurse’s uniform, right down to the white stockings, shoes, and that little cap they all used to wear, is a throw-back to the 1950’s—or to old porn flicks that often featured naughty nurses (or so I’m told). It helps enhance the sense that Elizabeth—who we’re told just showed up out of nowhere and may be from Newcastle, England (where they make the brown ale, Mable informs us), or from Nebraska—isn’t entirely on the up-and-up. Voyce dresses Lucy like a slightly less dumpy Gladys Ormphby, Ruth Buzzi’s spinster from Laugh-In (from the black-outs with Arte Johnson as the dirty old Walnetto masher), but without the hair net. Lucy’s all in shades of gray (not quite 50, though), down to gray stockings and a charcoal cardigan. If she wore horn-rimmed glasses, she’d pass for Agnes Gooch, Peggy Cass’s character in Auntie Mame.

The set, however, designed by Eugene Lee and lit by Tyler Micoleau “in Stygian gloom,” according to Variety, entirely confounded me. (Director Aukin follows the same working process with designers as he does with actors: brainstorming design concepts “through set model after set model.”) Except for one element, it’s fragmentary Realism: two mismatched, white-painted, metal-framed beds—the sort you might see in an old-time hospital or psych ward—mid-stage, a white metal patio table and chairs down front, and two lonely palm trees, one on each side of the set. But the location is ambiguous. The front half of the stage is two levels, all dark-stained wood, the downstage portion a step below the mid-stage part. The two beds, one for Roscoe and the other for Sally, are on the same level, headboard-to-headboard, but it’s not clear if they’re in separate rooms or one, and their relationship to what seems to be a deck is also unclear. Above the upper level of the house is a steeply raked wooden slope that’s apparently out the back of the structure and ends at a cliff that looks out over the San Fernando Valley. (The back wall of the stage is exposed just beyond the hill.) The wooden slope is studded with slats to allow the actors to scamper up it, so a realistic terrain is not intended (despite the presence of the realistic-looking palms). There’s a ramp from the middle level at stage right down to the lower platform to accommodate Mable’s wheelchair, and another ramp up to a look-out at the far-left edge of the stage where Mable is wheeled so she can “gaze out into the abyss” of the city. Now, I’m fine with suggested sets; I don’t need Realism. But it helps if I can figure out what I’m supposed to be looking at, what it’s supposed to represent.

In the press, Variety’s Stasio laments that Heartless “lacks . . . a dramatic showdown and suffers for it” but praises Shepard’s “distinctive lyrical voice” which she declares the play has “in spades.” In the Times, Brantley calls Heartless a “murky new play” that “provides only flashes of the glorious theatrical glee and anguish that animate” the writer’s earlier, stronger works. Of the production, Brantley declares that it “calls ponderous attention to its great metaphysical themes” and that “its symbols stand out like road signs on those lonely stretches of highway that Mr. Shepard so loves to write about.” The Timesman does, however, praise Shepard for the “reversed gender ratio” of Heartless. Newsday’s Linda Winer calls the play a “haunting if not entirely satisfying new mystery” that “is not a play for people who need answers more than questions.” Despite “early heavy-handed scenes” that “drag into the self-conscious,” though, Winer concludes, once Lois Smith takes over, “we feel the playwright moving into gripping new territory.” According to Dziemianowicz of the Daily News, Heartless is a “hazy new meditation on life and death and what’s in-between.” It “isn’t abysmal,” he warns, though “it does become tedious.” Then Dziemianowicz adds that “it also occasionally surges with offbeat humor,” though it’s not enough to be “satisfying.” Heartless “feels rather like an abyss, one devoid of coherent meaning,” writes the New York Post’s Scheck. The play “lacks the emotional resonance and sheer entertainment value,” he proclaims, and “the mysteries seem shapeless, the conflicts arbitrary.” In Time Out New York, David Cote suggests that Shepard “seemed to be drawing inspiration anew from theater-of-the-absurd influences” but ended up with “a piece lacking most major organs, not just the blood-pumping one.” Cote does add, in apparent contrast to Linda Winer, “It’s a credit to this handsome, atmospheric production that the thinness and vagueness of the script only rankles in the second act.” In the end, however, he concludes that the writer’s effort “doesn’t make this wan exercise in lyrical weirdness any more compelling.” Despite being “visually arresting, beautifully directed . . ., and well-acted,” affirms Erik Haagensen in Back Stage, Heartless “lacks a sufficiently rigorous internal logic that would allow Shepard to communicate his ideas and emotions in a way that makes them palpable.” In fact, Haagensen confesses, as if echoing my own complaint, “I’m honestly not sure what Sam Shepard is up to with ‘Heartless.’” He ends by calling the play an “airless symbolic drama” and declares that it “fails to accrete in a persuasive way.” In New York, Brown dubs the play a “headless black-comedy” that feels like one of Shepard’s earlier scripts that’s been “reworked, overworked, and worked-over.” Focusing on the presentation, the New Yorker’s Hilton Als writes that the production “removed us from feeling in any traditional way. ‘Heartless’ has been bled of melodrama’s passions.”

In the Village Voice, however, Michael Feingold says delightedly that “Heartless is a Sam Shepard play,” emphasizing that he hasn’t seen a real one since Fool for Love in 1982. What Feingold seems to mean is that he loves all the things most others had trouble with in the play: the non-linear storytelling, the absence of logic, the characters that don’t make sense outside the play. “Shepard,” Feingold insists, “twists reality, he disrupts its surface, he delights in presenting contradictory data”—and that’s all good for the Voice review-writer, even as it “has already started to make those who pursue logical explanations extremely unhappy.” In sum, he declares that the play contains “wonder and charm” which derive “from the very real passion behind it and poetry within it.” Finally, former New York Times reviewer Wilborn Hampton writes in the Huffington Post that this is Shepard’s “most inspired and imaginative work in years” and declares that to ask “what was that all about?” as I have, risks diminishing “Shepard's accomplishment in this lyrical and mysterious play.”

In my own defense, I’ll add that I don’t have a problem with Absurdism. I like Albee and Ionesco, and I’ve even declared Beckett a genius and Waiting for Godot a masterpiece. So it isn’t simply a lack of ordinary logic that has turned me off with Heartless. I don’t even have trouble with unanswered questions—though I prefer that I can hear the questions. But even Absurdism means something (and it has an internal logic, too, though that’s not important here). Tiny Alice, The Bald Soprano, and End Game all have a point a spectator (or a critic) can draw out. Even hybrids of Absurdism can appeal to me, as I revealed in my report on Fugard’s Blood Knot back in February. Told I shouldn’t be asking what a play means or what the playwright’s saying, whether by the dramatist or the reviewer from the Village Voice, irks me. Not only do I have a perfectly good right to ask such questions of any work of art, but no one has any business telling me I don’t. I immediately get an emperor’s-new-clothes feeling in the pit of my stomach (along with a sense of irritation): if they don’t want me to know what the play’s saying, then maybe it’s not saying anything. Godot’s full of meaning—probably more than I’ll ever figure out—which is why I say it’s a masterpiece; Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, another of my favorite plays, is only slightly less meaningful that Godot; and Blood Knot makes powerful statements about a number of important topics. In addition, the Absurdism makes its own point. With Heartless, I was just left confused and adrift. Someone telling me I should be satisfied with that doesn’t convince me of much, Michael Feingold and his iconoclasm notwithstanding.

[In addition to the anecdote about Lois Smith and the reference to the movie East of Eden, I was reminded of something else that's not the least bit significant, but it’s a curiosity that occurred to me during the performance. During one scene, Mable says something about a museum that had Roy Rogers's horse Trigger stuffed and on display. (It was at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, until it was sold at auction when the museum closed.) Well, when I was at Washington and Lee University, the skeleton of Robert E. Lee's horse Traveller was in the basement of my freshman dorm! When my dad, also a W&L alumnus, was a student in the ’30s, the skeleton was on display in the science building, but it had deteriorated over the years and decades of students had scratched their initials on the bones, so it was removed some years before I arrived and stored beneath the old freshman dorm, where I lived my second semester. Students, of course, didn't have access to the storage room under the dorm, but Traveller, called Lee's favorite horse, stayed there for many more years until he was buried in 1971 in a marked grave near the Lee Chapel on the front campus where Lee and his family, including Robert E. Lee’s father and Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, are interred and which now houses a Lee museum and his preserved office as it was when he left it. (For those who don’t know their post-Civil War trivia, Robert E. Lee accepted the presidency of what was then Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, in 1865 and remained there until his death in 1870. The college, which bore the name of Lee’s fellow Virginian George Washington because of a huge gift the first U.S. president had given the school in 1796, was renamed Washington and Lee University in Lee’s honor and in recognition of the contributions he made to the school during his tenure.)]

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  1. Playwright Sam Shepard, author of more than 55 plays who also appeared in more than 50 films and over a dozen television roles, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on 27 July at his Kentucky home at the age of 73. Best known for the plays 'True West' (1980), 'Fool for Love' (1983) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Buried Child' (1978), Shepard, who got his start in New York in the early days of Off-Off-Broadway at theaters like La MaMa E.T.C., Theater Genesis, and Caffe Cino, never became a mainstream commercial playwright. He won a supporting actor Oscar for 'The Right Stuff' and 12 Obie, a Drama Desk, a New York Drama Critics' Circle, an Outer Critics Circle awards, and two Tony nominations for his playwriting.

    ~Rick

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