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'Heartless' is classic Shepard with twists

L-R: Gary Cole (Roscoe) & Julianne Nicholson (Sally)

L-R: Gary Cole (Roscoe) & Julianne Nicholson (Sally) in HEARTLESS by Sam Shepard at The Pershing Square Signature Center in NYC. Credit: Handout

In "Heartless," we are in that strange yet familiar place known as Sam Shepard-land. And yet, this time, we are also somewhere else.

Shepard's surreal, haunting if not entirely satisfying new mystery has aspects of his 50-odd deeply scary, absurdly menacing, weirdly entertaining plays. Desert-rat fathers still abandon their families, the open road belongs to outlaws and the outlaws just might be your relatives.

But instead of estranged brothers with dual identities, "Heartless" has estranged sisters with a ghostly twist on triple identities. This time, his American-Gothic family of gold-standard eccentrics is not in some dirt-kicking town at the end of nowhere, but housed at the fancy top of a Los Angeles cliff (designed with austere invention and lovely ridiculous palm trees by Eugene Lee).

"This is L.A.," a character explains when asked about a yowling wail in the night, "People scream all the time."

Gary Cole, a bit too light to embody one of Shepard's disruptive strangers, plays Roscoe, a self-mythologizing Cervantes professor who moves into the family home of Sally, a sulky, much younger, sometimes-lover, after bolting his wife and kids. As curiously directed by Daniel Aukin, Julianne Nicholson stares ponderously into a later-explained void as Sally, a beauty with a medical secret who, among other effortful plot devices, thinks she's making a documentary about the guy.

More interesting is Sally's sister (the commanding Jenny Bacon), as stolid and dowdily dressed as Sally is flighty and barely clothed. Best of all, there is the formidable and daring Lois Smith as the mother with the unexplained paralysis, plus her formal, perfect-looking but mute nurse (Betty Gilpin). When the old woman with the poetic motormouth first describes the nurse's "unconditional loyalty," we have no idea the conditions required.

This is not a play for people who need answers more than questions. And in early heavy-handed scenes, Aukin lets Shepard's dry, ironic, stark dialogue drag into the self-conscious.

But as the surprising plot unfolds and Smith lets loose into one of her multileveled arias of contempt and sorrow, we feel the playwright moving into gripping new territory. Just as the professor wants to go somewhere without a name, Shepard, bless him, keeps us searching.

WHAT “Heartless”
WHERE Signature Theatre Company, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Familiar Sam Shepard territory, with sharp new twists

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