Jenny Bacon and Julianne Nicholson
in Heartless
(© Joan Marcus)
Jenny Bacon and Julianne Nicholson
in Heartless
(© Joan Marcus)
"I have never seen such a house full of wackos," one of the five figures sputters as the end approaches in Sam Shepard's new play Heartless at Pershing Square Signature Center, and many theatergoers will be tempted to agree. Worse yet, after close to two hours of watching these folks' various manifestations, their plights have not only ceased to be involving, but have become more than mildly irritating.

As the work unfolds, it's a challenge to decide which of the nut cases residing in a California (nut)house is the nuttiest. Sally (Julianne Nicholson) is endlessly cranky, in part, because as a child she received a heart transplant from a murdered girl, and seems unsure why she was saved from death.

Her sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon) is disgruntled from having to deal with their demanding mother, Mable (Lois Smith), who has lost the use of her hands, and is wheelchair-ridden. And there's also mysterious nurse Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin), a mute who emits the occasional ear-splitting scream.

Into their midst Sally has invited Roscoe (Gary Cole), a 65-year-old literature teacher who has abandoned his wife and grown children and has no other place to go -- and who stirs the ladies like a cat among the pigeons. Among the turns of events cluttering act two are the hay-roll Roscoe and Elizabeth share, and a late-in-the-play tantrum he throws that further riles everyone up.

Meanwhile, although Sally ends the first act singing a ditty that contains the lyric "I want to stay alive" -- and Elizabeth later indulges herself in a similar refrain -- vital life clearly isn't what Shepard sees for his benighted menagerie.

Indeed, as Shepard's two-act drama unfolds on Eugene Lee's sparely-furnished black set with its upstage raked playing area and two palm trees, it repeatedly makes the tired point that Hollywood destroys souls. It's a belief underscored many times in the play, but none more so than when Mable commands Elizabeth to push her to the high perch from which she enjoys "gazing into the abyss."

Unfortunately, because the work's intentions are otherwise so obscure, there's no way to judge the effectiveness of Daniel Aukin's direction or the ensemble's acting. It can be said, though, that in playing people ripe for being committed, the five actors all bring commendable commitment to the seemingly plotless and pointless Heartless.