Sam Shepard’s spookily engrossing drama, “Heartless,” presents two clues right away in its world premiere at the Signature Theatre.
There’s a scream. A young woman, her naked chest mapped by a thick crimson scar running nearly the length of her torso, crosses the stage to her much older lover’s bed. Neither seems to know the source of the howl.
Those are pretty good indications that a mystery is at hand; that sex will be involved; and that nothing will be what at first it appears to be.
Or at second, for that matter -- this being Shepard territory, where family secrets are buried so deep and private agendas play out so oddly that we never know who’s telling the truth. Alliances constantly shift.
Better to trust no one.
Sally (Julianne Nicholson), the woman in the opening scene, may be a student. She’s definitely moody. Her hookup is Roscoe (Gary Cole), a professor of literature specializing in Cervantes and Borges who recently left his wife and children.
When he leaves to walk his dog, Sally’s dour sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon) begins preparing a tray full of injections and medications for their crabby wheelchair-bound, no-nonsense, Shakespeare-quoting mother, Mable (Lois Smith). Neither Mable nor Lucy cares much for Roscoe, despite -- no, because of -- his efforts at diplomacy.
He does, however, catch the eye of Mable’s attractive, apparently mute, nurse Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin). You can probably guess what plot twists that inspires.
Sally’s scar is the result of a heart transplant received when she was a child. Living with the ticker of a dead girl has left her with an existential as well as a physical deformity. “I should be dead,” she says. She has taken to videotaping her intimate encounters with Roscoe, no matter how humiliating.
It’s not giving too much away to say that other scars will be revealed, and secrets dredged up that will make it impossible for us to believe anyone. That’s Shepard’s trademark: Denying us a credible guide into the lives of his dysfunctional characters. It’s what distinguishes his mature plays -- and this is one of them, if not up to the level of “Fool for Love” or “True West.”
Eugene Lee’s set doesn’t advertise the play’s Los Angeles setting; it comprises a pair of old-fashioned metal-frame beds, a cafe table and chairs and a steeply raked incline toward the back suggesting an overlook not of the ocean but of the San Fernando Valley. Two rather solitary-looking palm trees flank the stage.
Director Daniel Aukin leaves the dizzying changes in plot to the author while keeping his fine company in reality check. It unfolds naturalistically. The play is full of silences that have the force of poetry.
That makes sense for a playwright who swash-buckled through youth with rock ’n’ roll ferocity and now embraces mortality with something like remorse.
Through Sept. 30 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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