Bleak Desert House

Big-name celebrities don't ruin The Late Henry Moss, but Sam Shepard's tiresome love-death poetry comes close

The celebrity in The Late Henry Moss whom no one mentions is the guy who wrote the score and sits to the right of the stage, strumming melancholy, bluesy chords on an acoustic guitar whenever some famous screen actor starts jawing about the past. His name is T-Bone Burnett. The man is a legend in rock circles, mostly as a producer but also because of his songs, and why no one mentions him when they discuss all the celebrities crowding the theater in this blowout world premiere can only be explained by Burnett's reticence as a musician and by the near-total dominance of crap (Cheers, Nash Bridges) on TV.

I'm exaggerating, slightly. Burnett alternates strumming duties with a local musician, Jerry Hannan, so he's only up there half the time. And the actors associated with the TV shows just mentioned happen to deliver the strongest performances onstage.

But Burnett deserves more attention. His ghostly music is inherent to The Late Henry Moss, since the play deals with buried history. Sam Shepard has written and directed a new script packed with old Shepard clichés — feuding brothers, a death-summoning whore — and the meditative background guitar is one that still seems to work. Burnett's music sometimes moves in beautiful counterpoint to the actors' voices, especially in an early scene with Nick Nolte, as Earl Moss (the late Henry's son).

Earl and his brother Ray sit around their father's mud-walled bungalow in the New Mexican desert, with Henry on the bed behind them, wrapped like a mummy. Ray wants to know how he died; Earl says he isn't sure. But after a few minutes of brotherly wrangling he stands up to tell Ray (and us) what he knows. Nolte looks, as usual, like a sodden bear. He walks to a window lit deep, desert-morning blue, and the guitar starts to strum. In a gravelly voice Earl recounts a story about their father's taxi ride to a river. Apparently the old man left to go fishing, and came back later with a drunken Indian woman, who took a noisy bath in the bungalow. Later Henry hauled her out of the bathtub and vanished into the desert. The story gives an impression of the last, semimystical ravings of a lonely coot, and it would be very easy for Nolte to overdo the Shepard-esque melodrama. But he finds a perfect broken rhythm for his voice — he's aware of Burnett's music, but is never slave to it — and later we learn that any melodrama in the scene belongs to Earl's own stoned, sentimental lying.

Shepard undercuts himself here: He makes fun of his old clichés even as he pulls one off. Unfortunately the whole show is not so well balanced. Sean Penn (for example) plays Ray, who listens to the story with a sour skepticism. In blue suede shoes, a black leather coat, and a Hawaiian print shirt (Ray is from Los Angeles), he looks a part he never seems to feel. Admittedly, Penn has to play straight man, asking all the functional questions to direct the flow of conversation — but this doesn't excuse the emotional black hole he creates onstage. No energy comes out of him. He smirks his way through the role, and sometimes he even line-reads. When Ray brings up the past and Burnett's music starts, Penn fails to hold off the ambient melodrama and collapses into self-parody.

Luckily for everyone involved, Woody Harrelson plays the taxi driver who saw Henry's final fishing trip. Ray tracks him down to ask what happened. The taxi driver can't stick to the point; Harrelson stalks around the stage like an awkward teenager, sporting a sun hat, goatee, hip hop shorts, and an Okie accent. If he loses his job at the taxi firm, he says, he'll just go home and deliver pizza. In some college town. Where he can get laid. Like his wardrobe, the driver's fantasies spin out in every direction, and Harrelson (along with Shepard) brilliantly captures the whiny, cool swaggering of footloose kids in the late-'90s west. The only problem with this portrait is that the show takes place in 1988.

When the taxi driver gets around to telling his story, relevant characters start walking on: Henry Moss and his mysterious Indian woman cackle and scream; a neighbor, Esteban, comes over with soup. The past coexists with the present, and Burnett's music plays. The actual story of what happened to Henry is not very interesting — Shepard indulges in dialogue about sex and death, instead of solid event — and acts two and three both drag, in spite of good performances by Sheila Tousey, as Conchalla the whore, and Cheech Marin as Esteban. James Gammon plays Henry in a clownish monotone, which never widens into anything more complex, even when Earl confronts his father. Other critics have said the climax is the best part, but to me it comes too late, after too much setup and symbolic prevarication. Earl and Henry scream at each other with an Oedipal anger I just don't believe.

Shepard really needs to relinquish his cherished love-death poetry before it sinks him. The Late Henry Moss isn't terrible (like his Eyes for Consuela, which the Magic produced last year), and it doesn't collapse from the weight of big names on the stage; but if the Theater Event of the Year should also be the year's best show, this doesn't even come close. It is, of course, sold out, and the only way to get tickets is by signing up for a lottery between 11 a.m. and noon on the day of the show. Is it worth it? For Harrelson, maybe — and for Cheech, who does a surprisingly stylish job with his first live performance. But I'd wait for the movie. Only a camera can improve Sean Penn, and T-Bone Burnett will probably still do the score.

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