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The Late Henry Moss
Unlike John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom who made his final appearance in Rabbit at Rest after starring in a series of Rabbit novels, the connection between the Moss brothers and other Shepard siblings and assorted relatives and acquaintances are branches of different (though similar) family trees.
The Late Henry Moss doesn't match the complexity and brilliance of such works as the Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child and True West. But more than a failure of inventiveness, a minor replay of major predecessors, the new play strikes me as a deliberate summing up.
The San Francisco premiere which Shepard directed had an all-star cast which made it an immediate sellout and immune to carpings from critics. Now the playwright has trimmed his script (though not enough) and put it into the hands of his long time mentor and collaborator, Joseph Chaikin who knows his way around Shepard's shifts from rambunctious realism to more abstract and mystical moments. The cast too has changed. With the exception of Ethan Hawke, it is less high profile (Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson lit up the Magic Theater marquee).
Hawke, who left his mark on my memory as Kilroy in the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival of Camino Real (see link below ), gives another strong performance as Ray, the younger of the two tightly wound Moss brothers, with a belligerent and shoot-from-the hip dumbness. He is the detective who persists in digging into the facts surrounding the senior Moss's death which has reunited the brothers after seven years. Arliss Howard is a fine match as the more socially adjusted older brother, a businessman who lives in New York.
Guy Boyd brings an imposing physical presence to the dead father who appears in at least one flashback too many to let us see the alcoholic father who has retreated to a life without connections, living on the "blood money" earned as a World War II bomber pilot. He is less an original character than the author's symbol of the damaged root of America -- and by extension, the damaged but still knotted together American family. Shepard's one major departure here is that the angry confrontations end on a note of acceptance.
The reunion of the brothers starts out amiably enough, with Earl and Ray sitting around the shabby bungalow on the outskirts of Bernalillo, New Mexico. Earl is leafing through a photo album like any son trying to shore up happy memories of a dead parent. Yet his unwillingness to have the father's body removed and his steady inroads on the bottle (both sons have inherited the dad's penchant for drink) send clear signals that there are buried memories not likely to turn up in a snapshot.
That first scene sets the pattern for alternating flashbacks that include their father's taxi ride to go fishing and his return with Conchalla (Sheila Tousey), an Indian prostitute he met in jail and whose absurdist antics are wonderfully wild and lively. To add to the flavor of screwball comedy, there are periodic entrances from the dead man's only friend Esteban (Jose Perez), carrying his special Mexican Menudo soup. A third minor and very funny comic character is the compulsively fast-talking taxi driver (Clark Middleton) who took Henry on his last fishing expedition. Ray has lured him to the bungalow with a hundred dollars to fill in the details of that event. Taxi's nervous attempts to escape Ray's aggressive interrogation rival Conchalla's bathtub scene for laughs.
A performer who, though not a character, is Luke Notary, the musician present throughout at the side of the stage and adding an an effective extra touch of atmosphere. The production values generally are excellent
Staged in a big Broadway house, The Late Henry Moss would be unlikely to enjoy the success of last year's terrific revival of True West. But the Signature Theater Company's small venue is just the right size to give Shepard fans a welcome opportunity to see the new work of a writer who, even when not at the very top of his form, is always interesting and enjoyable. I wouldn't have missed The Late Henry Moss, as I don't plan to miss the new plays by Edward Albee and John Guare which will be part of the Signature's season of premieres by their past Playwrights-In-Residence.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
The Lie of the Mind