The Naked and the Dad

For Sam Shepard, the past isn't another country, but an alternative reality where the rules of logic cease to apply. Since moving from his radical performance collages of the '60s to his groundbreaking family dramas that began with Curse of the Starving Class in the late '70s, he has attempted to snare the elusive quality of memory in theatrical visions that are as desperate and seemingly improvisational as our own recollections of childhood. Though Shepard's focus has remained on the domestic (some might say loosely autobiographical) scene, his plays shatter kitchen-sink realism and its attendant sentimentality. Epic, unpredictable, and deliriously ironic, his anti-nostalgic tales create their own volatile forms, which at their best resemble a prizefight, at their worst a quickly evaporating dream. Their unwieldy nature is the source of both their power and weakness. The good thing about a Shepard play is that anything can happen; the bad thing is that it often does.

The Late Henry Moss—Shepard's contribution to the Signature Theatre's alumni season of new plays—underscores both the wildly inventive and erratic nature of his playwriting genius. The drama had its premiere last year at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, in a tepidly received all-star production that the author staged himself. Trying to avoid the same mistake, Shepard has enlisted his longtime collaborator Joseph Chaikin to direct its New York debut. But as the plodding, mixed-bag results suggest, this might be asking a bit too much.

Set in a squalid New Mexican adobe, the unhurried three-act revolves around Earl (Arliss Howard) and Ray (Ethan Hawke), two grown sons who return to the scene of their first nightmares to piece together the puzzle of their alcoholic father's last days. Luring the men on are the unanswered questions of their brutal upbringing. Of particular traumatic fixation is an incident referred to as the "big blowout," a watershed episode in which their drunk dad smashed his way into the house and locked their mother under the sink, propelling elder brother Earl to run away in his '51 Chevy. Estranged for the last seven years, Ray has not forgiven Earl for leaving him in the lurch.

The choke’s on you: Arliss Howard and Ethan Hawke in The Late Henry Moss.
photo: Susan Johann
The choke’s on you: Arliss Howard and Ethan Hawke in The Late Henry Moss.

Details

The Late Henry Moss
By Sam Shepard
The Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street 212-244-7529

Witch Mountain, Black Tarantula
By Collapsable Giraffe
Collapsable Hole
146 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn
718-388-2251

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Shepard's imagination continues to be fired by the destructive wake of Big Daddy. The stinking corpse of Henry Moss remains covered on stage throughout the first act, with Ray wondering why they can't just dig a hole themselves and throw the body in. Drinking the old man's bourbon and fondling his set of tools, the brothers enact their father's chief legacy: hurt masculinity fated to become the wounding model it both loathes and longs for. That Shepard seems to be treading familiar ground matters little, as the best playwrights often remain prisoners of their obsessions. Imagine Stanislavski complaining that The Cherry Orchard rehashes the same thematic ground as Uncle Vanya.

Nor could one criticize The Late Henry Moss for trundling down clichéd stylistic pathways. Moving freely between a hallucinatory past and a taut-string present, the surreal action begins with a bloated Henry Moss (Guy Boyd) dancing across the stage in a Wild Turkey haze with a buxom Mexican woman. The identity of this cackling Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), who occupied Henry's moribund last nights, stokes Ray's agitated curiosity. Is she merely a jailhouse whore, or is she some kind of mariachi harbinger of death? Every fact Ray extracts from the menagerie of neighborhood characters only leads deeper into a mystery that's as grotesquely carnal as it is occult.

Though the play is enthralling in a sort of Georgia O'Keeffe-meets-Dennis Hopper way, there's something amiss about the pacing, which can't be entirely attributed to the production's languid direction. Granted, Chaikin doesn't help matters by approaching each scene as though it were a self-contained Open Theatre acting exercise, but this seems more of a symptom of the play's big-picture fuzziness. The Late Henry Moss doesn't quite know where it wants to go, and in the absence of a definite path, momentum is generated by a string of ad hoc moments. Humorous as these can be (one hilarious piece of shtick involves a hunched-over Jose Perez as a Mexican neighbor inching across the stage with a bowl of strange-smelling soup), these routines don't contribute to any sense of progression or inevitability.

Similar to the slobbering kitchen clash in True West, Shepard builds the Moss brothers' simmering violence to an appliance-smashing crescendo. The mild-mannered casting, however, sets up obstacles. Howard's bland Earl buries his conflicted filial loyalty so deeply we can only guess at its existence. One wonders whether the actor was too busy imitating Shepard's Wild West reticence to figure out just who exactly his character is. Hawke has more success, subtly conveying the confusion of Ray's grief with his backlogged sibling jealousy. (He even resents his brother for spending time alone with the corpse.) Though Hawke's performance registers much truthfulness, his Tiger Beat pinup vulnerability makes it difficult for him to transform into a raging tyrant. It's hard to believe this unblemished creature has even a tangential connection to the mangy Moss household, never mind that he possesses the sadism to force his suddenly paralyzed brother to scrub away the ancestral grime.

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