Patriot Acts

Back in New York with a new play and starring in another, Sam Shepard reflects on the dangerous farce of contemporary politics

In the middle of our conversation, Horton Foote arrives for dinner with his son Horton Jr., who owns the restaurant. Shepard greets the older playwright, whom he met while acting in the TV film of Foote's Lily Dale. "I hear you're in rehearsal for the Caryl Churchill play," says Foote. "How's it going?" Shepard replies, "Very scary!"

Shepard encountered the Churchill play last February when he was shooting a film in Australia and a fellow actor loaned him the script. "I sat down and read it in one sitting and it absolutely blew me away. It's a short play, but I couldn't believe how powerful it was. It's a major, major contemporary play. I think it will go down as a classic." He admits that he doesn't read many contemporary plays. He has never seen or read any of Churchill's other works; the only recent play he's familiar with is Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which he saw several times on Broadway. Nevertheless, when he heard a New York production of A Number was happening, he called to express interest, only to discover that the part had been offered to Nick Nolte. "People have been trying to get me to be in plays for 30 years, and the first time I said yes, I had to wait for Nick to turn it down," he says with a laugh.

Aside from his admiration for the script, Shepard wanted to stretch as an actor. Though he's made 40 movies since 1978, he says, "Film acting is really the trick of doing moments. You rarely do a take that lasts more than 20 seconds. You really earn your spurs acting onstage. I needed to do that for myself. I would hate to say at the end of everything that I never did a stage play." The most frightening thing for him about stage acting is "the confrontation with the audience. Being observed that closely." Of course, the last time he tried acting onstage, he and Patti Smith were doing a heightened version of their own love affair, on a double bill at the American Place Theater with his play Back Bog Beast Bait, whose cast included his then wife (and the mother of his one-year-old son), O-Lan. After just one performance of Cowboy Mouth, Shepard split. "The thing was too emotionally packed," he said at the time. "I suddenly realized I didn't want to exhibit myself like that, playing my life onstage. It was like being in an aquarium."

Since then Shepard has been in front of big audiences for literary readings. "[But] to stand up and read poetry or stories is one thing," he says. "To play a character like this is a different challenge." In A Number, he plays Salter (a role originally performed in London by Michael Gambon), a man who deals with the unforeseen consequences of allowing his son to be cloned. (Dallas Roberts plays Salter's son and two of the clones.)

"The character I'm playing is dealing with a terrible, terrible mistake he tried to correct, and in trying to correct it he created an even worse disaster. On the surface he deals with anger, arrogance, denial. But underneath he's haunted by guilt and remorse. Underneath the language is this tremendous emotional base that you have to be vulnerable to. You have to listen very closely. You have to follow the veins and the rivers and the creeks and everything the language is leading you to. Every once in a while, it just erupts."

Churchill's writing is staccato, poetic, and elliptical. (Typical line: "It is, I am, the shocking thing is that there are these, not how many but at all.") The director James Macdonald, whose exquisite production of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis recently played at St. Ann's Warehouse, said of Shepard as an actor, "He's absolutely brilliant with language. He has a writer's ear for it and a musical ear as well. It's a tricky, intricate text, and he's learnt it with absolute fidelity and accuracy. His taste as an actor is towards minimalism, which is exactly right for the piece. It doesn't need a lot of external huffing and puffing. Just do the thing as simply as you can with the greatest truth you can muster."

The convergence of A Number and The God of Hell is a fortunate happenstance. The original plan was for the latter to be staged on Broadway by Matthew Warchus, who directed the revival of True West with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in 2000. Then a change in Warchus's schedule precluded a Broadway run this fall, and Shepard really wanted to get the play up while the presidential election campaign was still fresh in the public mind. As soon as director Lou Jacob (he and Shepard have the same agent, Judy Boals) came on board August 1, it was a mad scramble to find a theater and a cast to mount the show in October.

Previews began October 29, which meant only a handful of performances preceded the election. Noting the difference in response, Jacob said, "Before, the audience was more reticent. They were holding their breath more. Now it's a reality and they're gasping with horror."

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