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Ethan Hawke and Arliss Howard in The Late Henry Moss
(Photo: Susan Johann)
According to the Playbill, fight direction for Sam Shepard's newest play, The Late Henry Moss is by the ubiquitous B. H. Barry. If you happen to notice the credit before the play starts and then put two and two together when the lights go up on a pair of conversing brothers, you might think, "Those boys are going to mix it up before much time goes by." If you do, you know your Shepard.

You may also scan Christine Jones's stucco-walled set with its sparse furnishings--a metal bed, a table, a tub, a sink, a refrigerator--and, when you spy that battered fridge, think, "There's food in there, and it's going to end up on the floor." If you do, you definitely know your Shepard front to back.

Yes, the confronting siblings of this play, who are (no surprise) very different one from the other, eventually grapple not once but twice. And, yes, food does get scattered. So what else is new, you might think. Been here, seen this. It's Shepard covering the same old territory. In The Late Henry Moss, the two brothers--who are endlessly edgy around each other for reasons it takes the length of the play to get to the bottom of--have arrived at a sleazebag hotel efficiency room in a god-forsaken New Mexico town to figure out what to do about their father. The eponymous old man lies dead as a doornail on the above-mentioned metal cot with only his shod feet sticking out from under a patterned blanket.

Earl (Arliss Howard), in from New York in a single-breasted suit and subdued by ostensible grief, doesn't understand why the nervous Ray (Ethan Hawke), who arrived on the scene a day or two later, won't stop asking questions about the sequence of episodes leading up to dear old dad's demise. "I don't remember," Earl says at least a half dozen times. Ray's first words--spoken after we see an opening image of Henry Moss dancing across the room with a zaftig Mexicana--are "I was never one to live in the past."

That's a signal that the play is going to be about brothers confronting their disparate memories of the past. It is subsequently revealed that their past was spent under the thumb of an alcoholic father who, a few decades earlier, abandoned them and their battered mother. Over the course of three relatively brief acts--wow, a three-act play in 2001!--Ray tries to get satisfaction from Earl on the cloudy subject of home life. When he doesn't quickly learn what he's after, he seeks to be enlightened by the three people whom Earl has said were the last to see Henry Moss alive. They are Esteban (Jose Perez), who lives across the road and daily brought Henry hot soup; a cab driver (Clark Middleton) who had taxied Henry to and from an unlikely fishing expedition; and Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), the dancing doxy first seen tangoing with Henry in flashback.

Though Ray intensifies his interrogation and Earl intensifies his demurrals, the others prove to be more forthcoming. It becomes evident that both brothers lied when they made their initial declarations. Ray does live in the past. Listening to the truth as narrated by Esteban, "Taxi," and Conchalla, he stands riveted and numb, standing off to the side on a raised platform and peering obsessively into the past. He gazes further into it when, at last, he gets Earl to admit his faulty memory isn't faulty at all. It seems that Earl is simply determined not to recall a painful childhood and young adulthood.

In describing Henry Moss's final hours, Esteban, Taxi, and Conchalla give the audience a chance to get to know the late boozehound, played with gusto by Guy Boyd. Moss turns out to be a man of no redeeming qualities, a drunk who turned his back on life so much that he considered himself dead long before he literally turns up his toes. He's the kind of abusive husband and father whom you hear described at A.A. meetings. He doesn't even tango with any particular aplomb, and the fish he catches and brings back with him is only about five symbolic inches long; at one point, Conchalla swallows it in a single gulp.

Another moment from The Late Henry Moss
(Photo: Susan Johann)
So, yes, Shepard is mining the same old lode--and he's taking too much time at it. The playwright's longtime collaborator, director Joe Chaikin, doesn't help matters. Memories are often confusing, and the memories two people have of past family events can be in conflict...but that doesn't mean that their dramatic presentation should be confusing. Ambling towards the play's point, Shepard indulges himself in too many of his by-now somewhat shopworn tricks and tropes, and they fudge the proceedings. The dialogue is, as usual, a crafty blend of the prosaic and the poetic, but it tends to run on. The physical activity is predictable, the fights too predictable, despite B. H. Barry's skill at making stage brawls look absolutely authentic.

Is this reason enough to throw the babyish boys out with the bathetic bathwater? Not entirely, Shepard long ago staked a claim to a lot of dramatic acreage, and he's still finding plots (pun intended) that he hasn't explored before. When, at the denouement of The Late Henry Moss, older brother Earl breaks down and admits his reasons for failing to come to younger brother Ray's aid when they were kids, it's a legitimately moving passage. Shepard is to be chided for taking so long to get where he wants to go but, when he gets there, he has landed someplace. And it's close to a stroke of genius that he ends the play with a paraphrase of the opening statements that speaks volumes about the possibility for the battling brothers' future.

Actors looking for chances to sink their teeth into rewarding material aren't likely to turn down a Shepard piece, no matter what reviewers say. When this work was produced on the west coast, Nick Nolte and Sean Penn headed the cast. This side of the land, it's Hawke--whose surname gives a good idea of how he attacks and carries off his lines--and Howard, who delivers Earl's quieter speeches with all the guarded diffidence of someone who knows full well that he can't sustain a complicated deception. (Howard has to play an unplayable drunk scene in the third act. Stumbling around with his shirttails hanging out and railing at the ceiling, he doesn't pull off the acting stunt--but it's not his problem, it's Shepard's.) Middleton has a wonderful go at the fidgety, gabby cab driver, and Perez and Tousey breathe quick life into their showy parts. Nice work, too, by lighting designer Michael Chybowski, who has all those transitions into and out of garish flashbacks to contend with. Luke Notary suavely manipulates all kinds of percussion instruments in David Van Tieghem's menacing music.

Press materials for the production echo one of the standard clichés attached to Sam Shepard's prolific output in reporting that this hyperventilating work is "set in the mythic terrain of Shepard's American West." All too often, that's the kind of statement made about a play's subtext when the text itself doesn't make a lot of sense. Of The Late Henry Moss, let's just say it isn't a complete myth--er, miss.

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