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Don't Play It Again

Sam Shepard revisits all-too-familiar territory in The Late Henry Moss; two plays about love emit few sparks.

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Sam Shepard writes three kinds of plays. Some are naturalistic, with perhaps a touch of the bizarre; some are part realistic, part fantastic or arcane; some are totally nutty, such as States of Shock. They fall into three periods: the early one, fascinating though uneven; the middle, mostly effective (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, Fool for Love, True West); and the late, starting with A Lie of the Mind (1985), very much inferior.

The Late Henry Moss is, alas, late Sam Shepard, unable to find its form or convey its meaning. It rehashes the heavily belabored Shepard topics: ferocious fighting between brothers; problems with a difficult or impossible father (present or absent), life in the desert as opposed to life in the city, sex as a violent physical conflict, unexplained occurrences with contradictory explanations whirling around them.

Ray Moss, a younger brother about whose life we find out nothing, has arrived in a New Mexican adobe hut where his older brother, Earl, has been keeping a three-day vigil over the already stinking body of their dead father, Henry. We learn that Henry was a drunk in poor physical shape, but also terrifying and seemingly indestructible. Also that when the brothers were children, Henry used to beat their mother, whereupon she would lock him out of the house, eliciting even worse explosions. When the going got too rough, Earl, instead of interceding, got into his jalopy and was gone for seven unaccounted-for years, though we don't learn much about the following years, either. We discover that Esteban, who lives in a neighboring trailer, regularly brought the boozing Henry soup and other food, which he mostly ignored.

How did Henry survive? Ray discovers that his father had a girlfriend, Conchalla Lupina, a fellow drunk he met in jail, who is earth mother, whore, superwoman, and angel of life and death -- "a man could die in her arms and thank the saints." Back when Henry was alive, she declared him dead, which he sometimes anxiously believed, sometimes vehemently denied.

As a symbol, Conchalla is as confusing as everything else here, the language foremost. Esteban sometimes speaks in faulty, Hispanicized English; at other times, his English is prosaic but flawless. Ray can sound like a lowlife, a solid bourgeois (somewhat dense), or an inspired poet. Taxi, the driver Henry summons from Albuquerque to ferry him and Conchalla on a fishing trip to the mountains, is part voluble stooge, part sweet reasonableness itself.

And the structure? We get two major flashbacks while Ray freezes on a small platform downstage left. The first is justified as Taxi's narrative of the fishing excursion; the second just occurs, out of nowhere. At play's end, the brothers are back in their opening position, repeating the first two lines of the initial dialogue. Amid all the ruckus at one point, Esteban is calmly preparing a menudo, on whose stench Ray acridly comments, and which, according to the stage directions, the audience is supposed to smell. (We were spared this; perhaps the smell of the play was deemed sufficient.) As opposed to such literalism, we get a pit musician accompanying the action with highly stylized music, and a door opening and closing by itself.

The play is directed by Joseph Chaikin, Shepard's pal and sometime co-author, slowly and uninventively. Chaikin, who is partially disabled by a stroke, has cast as Taxi a somewhat similarly disabled actor, which does not jibe with his character and creates further confusion. Ethan Hawke is tolerable as Ray, but the able Arliss Howard is a bit too slight to make a suitable adversary as Earl. My heart went out to him during a brutal fight, dazzlingly devised by B. H. Barry, in which Ray wipes up the floor with him, and then supererogatorily makes him wipe the same floor with a rag. Sheila Tousey gets Conchalla's toughness, but not her appeal. Guy Boyd is a bit weak as Henry, Jose Perez fine as Esteban in this generally well-designed production.

Well, perhaps the clue is in Earl's observation "People are always making up stuff," and Ray's remark "People will believe anything." The former may apply to Shepard, the latter to the audience.

Folks who like plays about love, no matter how awful, can choose between Charles L. Mee's First Love, which is merely inept, and David S. Rosenthal's Love, which is inane. First Love is about septuagenarian lovers who meet in a skirmish over a park bench but are soon headed for what may be first love for both of them. Harold's idea of sexual bliss is rubbing behinds together. Forthwith the overweight Frederick Neumann (Harold) and the obese Ruth Maleczech (Edith) -- he completely naked, she partially so -- are doing just that in her pad, though she then induces him to lie back on a sofa as she squats on him for greater satisfaction.

Even first love is not without blemish. Earlier, at a restaurant, Melody, a sassy waitress, insinuated herself into Harold's imagination. She becomes Harold's fantasy lover in two of the play's three musical numbers (golden oldies), with which the author interlards the palaver. Under the direction of his daughter, named in a resistible imperative Erin B. Mee, the play lurches ahead jarringly as the affair progresses and disintegrates with equal predictability. "This is why men drive naked women into a pit with bayonets," Harold shouts during a lovers' quarrel; Edith responds, "And this is why women want to shoot men on sight . . . why they flush boy babies down the toilet at birth." The procedure recommends itself to certain manuscripts as well.

David S. Rosenthal got rich writing sitcoms (Ellen, Spin City, etc.), then started a new life by divorcing his wife and writing what he considers Truth and Art, to wit Love. In the first scene, Kate Miller, as a white woman called Kate, cock-teases the audience with mostly four-letter words repeated ad nauseam. Next scene, Ty Jones, as a black man who calls himself David Rosenthal, exults in his sexuality and keeps expressing his ambition to "fuck Heidi Klum," the supermodel. In the third scene, which is mostly reiterated monosyllables, only every other one obscene, they mime a fully clad, unerotic consummation. Finally, the real Rosenthal comes out, full of himself, to answer audience questions. The first one was "Why?," which he, deliberately or not, misunderstood in much the same way he has art and truth.

The Late Henry Moss
By Sam Shepard, at the Peter Norton Space at Signature Theater.

First Love
By Charles L. Mee.

Love
By David S. Rosenthal.


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