By Robert Heide
At the Signature Theater on 42nd Street the new Sam Shepard play “Heartless” is currently playing with an opening date of Monday August 27. At a late preview at the theater on the Thursday evening of August 23 John Gilman and I ran straight into Sam Shepard standing in the combination playwright book-shop and coffee/wine bar restaurant.
Wearing his rolled-up cowboy Levi’s, a Western plaid shirt and boots and looking like Gary Cooper in “High Noon” Sam gave out that still boyish devil-may-care smile as we shook hands. He introduced us to his young English director Daniel Aukin. “Where has the time gone?” Sam asked, and my reply was “you look just great!” which indeed he does. I told Sam I had just seen him acting in a late night TV movie on PBS in which he was somewhere stuck in a small town in the West drinking and driving from one burg to another in a pick-up truck. “That’s me!” Sam said, “I’m still doing that. Getting stuck in small hick towns!” We started conversing about the creative life that was everywhere in the 1960s at the Caffe Cino, LaMama, Judson Church, Theater Genesis – the places where burgeoning playwrights like Sam, myself, Tom Eyen, Lanford Wilson, William M. Hoffman, David Starkweather, Leonard Melfi, Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, Jeff Weiss, H. M. Koutoukas, Murray Mednick, Rochelle Owens, Maria Irene Fornes, John Guare and others could try out new work.
In those days playwrights, actors, and directors formed a community which came to be known as off-off Broadway; and Sam was central to that. Hope and enthusiasm was the order of the day and I remember Sam encouraging then "Voice" critic Michael Smith to try his hand at writing plays. We all gathered at coffee shops to talk about what we were up to. For Sam it was all about the creative process whether in writing, acting, or playing drums with a rock band. Sam spoke of the craziness of it all citing Freddy Herko doing his legendary LSD ballet leap to his death from Johnny Dodd’s 5th floor apartment at 5 Cornelia Street. I mentioned the day it happened I was walking down 4th Street toward 6th Avenue and as I was crossing Cornelia I noticed someone in the middle of the street sweeping up what looked like a combination of blood, and brains. I told Sam and Daniel I was then acting out a ‘super cool’ attitude which I had taken on from hanging out too much at Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory, and seeing this horror, said to myself that ‘this must be someone I know.’ “Yeah! That was Freddy Herko” said Sam, “in the sixties it was definitely not the thing to show too much by way of feelings.” He gave a big toothsome grin and we all laughed about the idea of being ‘cool.’ “I hope you like the play” Sam said; and I followed with “You gonna be around later?” “No, I’m checking out. There are a lot of critics here tonight; it’s nerve wracking.” We looked at one another and it was at once weird and wonderful, still crazee after all these years as the ‘60s song goes. ‘What an amazing presence’ I thought. There was none of that movie star, prize winner pretentiousness. I recalled how much I liked one of his early plays “Icarus Mother” at the Caffe Cino which was directed by Michael Smith. This among the many others I saw including another special favorite of mine “Red Cross” with Sam Waterston at the Judson.
As it turns out the play “Heartless” is centered around a sixtyish male character named Roscoe brilliantly enacted by Gary Cole. In the play Roscoe is a famous writer who refers to his career in the l960s as ‘a junkie.’ He is on the run from his uptight longtime wife and children and finds himself living for the time being in a house (or is it a sanitarium or Betty Ford style rehab?) The place is high up in the Hollywood hills overlooking the glittering Los Angeles wasteland below. Four female characters are ensconced in ‘the house’ and on the set are two brass beds and a garden table with two chairs. The great actress Lois Smith portrays Mabel Murphy the central mother figure, an angry embittered character confined to a wheelchair who has a monologue in which she describes seeing James Dean in “East of Eden” talking to himself in a bean field. She says she watched the movie perched on a branch up a tree overlooking a drive-in movie below not able to hear a word; and at this juncture has a fall and is left an invalid. Many in the audience gasped upon hearing this remembering that Lois Smith as a young girl played opposite James Dean in that movie.
Other pop-culture references in the play mention a confused Dorothy on the yellow brick road in Oz, “Gone with the Wind” and cowboy star Roy Rogers and his Palomino horse Trigger. The character Roscoe notes that Trigger was auctioned off after the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville became defunct. “What kind of a person would bid on an old moth-eaten stuffed horse?” The title “Heartless” literally comes out of the fact that the youngest and prettiest of two sisters had a heart replacement when she was nine. Added to this mix is a demented nurse in attendance of the matriarch. The nurse screams and moans occasionally thinking she is dead and crooning a song with the lyric “I want to be alive.” The direction of the play by Daniel Aukin is flawless and the actors are nothing short of superb, particularly the focal characters Lois Smith and Gary Cole.
Sam’s Playbill bio opens thus: ‘Sam Shepard (playwright) was first produced in New York in 1963 at Theater Genesis and many times at LaMama and the Caffe Cino.’ Lois Smith’s "Playbill" bio cites her Tony-nominated performance in “Buried Child” and mentions as her first movie “East of Eden” starring James Dean.