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Theater Review

A Man's Life Passes Before His Bleary Eyes

Sam Shepard's 'Henry Moss' contains rich moments, yet even after three hours, much remains unknown.


SAN FRANCISCO — In 1986, Robert De Niro returned to the New York stage for a play called "Cuba and His Teddy Bear." Two years later, Steve Martin and Robin Williams decided to wait for Samuel Beckett's Godot at Lincoln Center, provoking a similarly noisy stampede for tickets.

You'd have to go back that far, arguably, for the last time such attention-getting film actors caused such a theatrical stir, anywhere in this country.

Nick Nolte and Sean Penn, two of America's best when it comes to cinematic tough-guy poetics, have returned to the boards for the world premiere of Sam Shepard's "The Late Henry Moss." The play is being staged by Shepard under the auspices of the Magic Theatre--home to many Shepard premieres of yore, before he started doing all that infernal acting.

At this early stage, all too apt for a work about identity, "The Late Henry Moss" is still searching for itself. It's a boozy, meandering affair. Even if Shepard were to cut 30 or 45 minutes tomorrow, he'd have larger matters awaiting him. For a play about uneasily reunited brothers--comparisons to "True West," among others, are inevitable--one of those brothers, the malignant, hurting Ray portrayed by Penn, remains more a functionary and instigator of flashbacks than a fully stage-worthy creation.

Yet in flashes, mostly in Act 3, Shepard finds gold. It's there, sweetly and painfully, in one of the evening's rare moments of calm: An unexpected dreamlike truce between Earl Moss (Nolte) and his New Mexico desert rat of a father, Henry (James Gammon).

Their hot-asphalt voices almost hilariously well-matched, Nolte and Gammon slowly stagger toward each other, looking in each other's eyes. "Are you seeing me right now?" Henry asks. Searching for signs of life and tenderness in the old man's eyes, Earl says yes, he recognizes a voice, a smell, a few other things.

Ever since being pronounced "dead" by his lover, Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), Henry has felt the way Willy Loman felt: temporary about himself. Yet this rageful alcoholic has been haunted for decades by a particularly nasty incident of domestic violence, one that battered his wife, sent Earl flying out of the house and left Earl's brother Ray behind, betrayed and alone.

Henry's slow death, Shepard's play suggests, began that night. Here and there, with tantalizing unevenness, "The Late Henry Moss" captures that creeping sense of past misdeeds shadowing the present.

It's set up like a mystery, albeit of the three-hour, beating-around-the-bush variety. At the start, Henry's dead body lies under a sheet in his sparse adobe house. Earl tells the newly arrived Ray that he was summoned a few days ago by a call from Henry's neighbor, Esteban (Cheech Marin). Ray doesn't believe Earl's account, so he tracks down the taxi driver (Woody Harrelson) who took Henry and Conchalla fishing just before Henry died.

Shepard eventually reveals what went down in Henry's final hours. The character of Conchalla is deployed as a symbolic angel of mercy. Esteban is amiable servitude incarnate. (There's a lovely comic moment in which Tousey picks up Esteban, an indistinct role wonderfully played by Marin, promises him a good "bounce" and flops him around like a rag doll.) With these peripheral characters, Shepard isn't so much flirting with cliche here as diving in head first.

More problematically, Shepard hasn't yet fleshed out Henry. He is pretty much what Earl says he is: a "breathing and yelling" machine. It's a conundrum for any playwright: How do you enliven characters who alternately bore and exasperate each other? Shepard can answer that one better than just about anyone else, but he's still a rewrite away.

And like many a first-rank playwright, Shepard probably shouldn't direct his own stuff. The production flattens out the pacing and the dynamics. It's mostly a text issue--many of the play's explosive moments come out of nowhere, and not in a good way--but sharper staging would help.

It's fascinating watching this starry cast wrestle with an unwieldy work. Nolte and Penn take full advantage of the Theatre on the Square's miked stage, which is another way of saying they need to watch their volume. Penn has it toughest: Ray seems a pale holdover from any number of previous Shepard works. The character's decision to claim the family home recalls the climax of "Buried Child." Yet the decision lacks heft in this context; we just don't know enough about the guy, and not just in some hackneyed back-story fashion.

As a result, Penn mostly hangs back. In his own way, so does Nolte. Theirs are anything but grandstanding performances. Both actors clearly are trying to find their way inside characters not easy to activate. Nolte, having more to play (while smoking pretty much constantly), has the advantage of that memorable encounter with Gammon.

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