Play It (Again), Sam

Remove Sam Shepard from this reimagining of a Frank O'Connor short story, and what's left?

Apr 9, 2008 at 4:00 am

Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss, a play that has died and been reborn as many times as its title character, is set in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. But there is nothing enchanting about this locale: a shabby, liquor-stained adobe bungalow twenty miles north of Albuquerque. The terrain is as empty as the hopes of the peons who eke out their obscure lives on this sere mesa. Central New Mexico is known for its spectacular sunsets. But the dark dying that plays (and replays) out in Shepard's drama does not occur in the sky.

The narrative of The Late Henry Moss is loosely drawn on a 1931 short story by Irish writer Frank O'Connor. "The Late Henry Conron" tells an amusing tale about a drunken idler in Dublin who abandons his family and moves to America. Twenty-five years later when his wife declares him dead, Henry returns and has a devilish time persuading people that he's still alive. Shepard has reshaped the story, so we are led to believe, around his own father, who — like Henry Moss — was a bomber pilot in World War II. But Shepard's Henry is abusive and violent. Apparently it took the playwright many years to come to terms with this character. The script has undergone several rewrites since its critically drubbed debut in 2000.

As it surely was for Shepard in revealing this story, so too is the onstage action a kind of exorcism. Two brothers who have not seen each other in seven years are reunited by the death of their estranged father. Right from the outset, as Ray (David Wassilak) and Earl (William Roth) sit across a table baiting each other, questions arise: Are things as they seem? Or are these two warring brothers the alpha and omega of an only child (as Shepard is)? Anything is possible in a Shepard play, which is why some people find him utterly fascinating (while others find him merely confusing).

How did Henry die? Earl arrived here first; what information is he withholding from Ray? And why? As we move into Act Two of a three-act play, various flashbacks assume a Rashomon effect. Those who knew Henry better (or at least more recently) than his own sons relate their own accounts of his final hours. These colorful characters, who provide the evening with its humor and sensuality, include a mild Chicano neighbor with a penchant for making soup (Larry Dell), a bewildered taxicab driver (John Pierson) and a voracious prostitute (Brooke Edwards) who emerges as a kind of life force: "She would burn a hole right through your heart."

But the most vibrant character of all is the cantankerous Henry himself. Kevin Beyer gives him a lusty, ride-'em-cowboy reading that makes the repellent patriarch the most commanding figure onstage. Not that we really care how he died, but how he lived is an eyeful. Under the restraint of director Milt Zoth, Beyer brings remarkable control to a character that exudes excess.

Beyond dealing with his own personal ghosts, it's hard to know what Shepard is after here — though it does seem clear that in the hostile, unbalanced Ray he has created a character of singular repugnance. Some critics have found in the Moss family a metaphor for American society; others have written about the peril of allowing the past to remain unreconciled. It's left to the viewer to determine how much of this is actually in the play and how much has been layered on due to Shepard's reputation for enigma. The Late Henry Moss is not a major play; nor do we only want to see a dramatist's "greatest hits." Yet the fact remains that this offering intrigues because of its author; had it been written by Sam Smith or Jane Shepard, it might make for an evening as parched as its locale.