Violence certainly flares and food eventually flies in “The Late Henry Moss,” the new Sam Shepard play at the Signature Theater Co., but for much of its 2½-hour running time, the play feels like Shepard lite, pallid and perfunctory rather than hot-blooded and hopped up.
The play had its world preem last fall at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, in a production starring Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson, among others, and their high-voltage personalities may have helped to mask some of the watery patches in the writing. The New York premiere features Arliss Howard and an egregiously miscast Ethan Hawke, in a staging from Joseph Chaikin that reveals this longtime Shepard collaborator to be in rusty form.
The landscape — both spiritual and physical — will be recognizable to followers of the playwright: The play is set in a dingy shack in an unsavory corner of New Mexico, and the discourse, mostly between two brothers with a smoldering grudge to settle, rambles across familiar emotional territory.
Earl (Howard) and Ray Moss (Hawke) sit at the small dining table of their deceased father, divided by a bottle of bourbon and a set of diverging memories. The late Henry lies stretched out on the bed in the corner, with a blanket over him, while the boys squabble vaguely over a violent episode from the past — Henry’s brutalizing attack on their mother and what Ray insists was Earl’s subsequent abandonment of the family.
This truculent standoff between brothers who share a legacy of pain centered around a boozing mess of a father strongly recalls the architecture of “True West,” but Shepard’s writing here lacks the festering emotional charge and savage, explosive humor of that far superior play. Indeed, the antic comedy and the sublimated aggression both come across rather limply during two of the play’s three acts, particularly as delivered by a dogged but bland Howard and a game but out-of-his-depth Hawke.
Both actors are indisputably talented, but they’re not large presences onstage, and “Henry Moss” would seem to require actors who can bring their own crypto-mythic qualities to the party; Shepard’s writing here, for a change, doesn’t supply much of it. Hawke struggles to ape the cartoonish swagger of one of Shepard’s trademark bad boys, but role and actor are hopelessly mismatched: It’s like watching a prep school boy trying to act a gangsta thug.
It gradually emerges that Henry’s last days were spent in the company of a taxi driver (Clark Middleton) and a hot-blooded femme fatale named Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), as well as a neighbor named Esteban (Jose Perez) who warned Earl that Henry had come into some money and was heading for a dangerous bender. As Ray pries the details from a reluctant Earl, the last, desperate hours of Henry’s life are enacted before us in a series of flashbacks.
Christine Jones’ set places a few sticks of grimy furnishings inside a cement bunker that suggests the oppressive nature of the characters’ anguished histories, and it’s lit by Michael Chybowski with flashes of neon colors that give a hallucinatory charge to the memory scenes.
As the late, mostly unlamented Henry, Guy Boyd moves with the unwieldy, cumbersome gait of a drugged bear, but his wild-eyed self-destructiveness doesn’t arouse the kind of pathos the play strives for; as with the actors playing Henry’s sons, Boyd carefully articulates Henry’s belligerent surface without filling in the contours of his bruised soul.
Middleton, Tousey and particularly Perez add some exotic comic seasoning to the play, with Perez giving the evening’s most memorable performance as the sensitive, soup-bearing Esteban, who mourns Henry as his damaged sons cannot.
But Chaikin’s hand at the helm never quite finds the propulsive rhythm the play needs to smooth over the flaccid patches in the writing. It doesn’t help that the text keeps plodding in circles or stalling for contrived comic contretemps when it should be driving on to the dark heart of the matter, and its violent denouement has the carefully choreographed feeling of a square dance.
Nevertheless, the play does finally reach an anguished, cathartic climax in the last act, as scenes of Earl and Ray re-enacting the agonizing turning point in their parents’ lives is cross-cut with scenes in which the dying Henry embraces the truth about the downward spiral of his life. The mesmerizing allure of Shepard’s corrosive vision of life suddenly takes hold, and the gut heaves with acute feeling for his hopelessly damaged characters seeking a truce with the tormenting ghosts of the past. We leave “The Late Henry Moss” haunted by a ghost ourselves — the shadow of the richer, stronger, more incisive and more agonizing play that might have been.