A pinch of Pinter permeates the first act of Sam Shepard’s “Heartless,” at the Irene Diamond Stage, to salutary effect. Set in what seems to be the middle of nowhere (but is revealed to be the outskirts of Los Angeles), the drama is captivatingly elusive, punctuated by haunting silences and populated by characters with secrets and baggage to spare. But as the play proceeds, its revelations prove less than compelling and its silences yield to cacophony — but its initial power is not completely lost.
The Murphy family, consisting of matriarch Mable (Lois Smith) and her daughters Sally (Julianne Nicholson) and Lucy (Jenny Bacon), is not easily warmed up to. Nor is Mable’s mute (except when she’s not) nurse Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin). The play’s sole male character, Roscoe (Gary Cole), is its most approachable, even if he has left his wife to be with Sally when he’s not boffing Elizabeth.
Symbolic with a capital “S,” “Heartless” is both enigmatic and obvious. Sally’s blood is pumped by the heart of a murder victim, transplanted into her as a young girl. The large unsightly scar on her torso is presumably emblematic of her emotional state.
If “Heartless” ultimately doesn’t have much to say, its moments of eloquence are dazzlingly, if puzzlingly, affecting. Its excellent cast, led by the indomitable Smith and directed with precision by Daniel Aukin, shines. The actors each inhabit a world of isolation yet interact with each other with crisp intensity.
Irene Diamond Stage, Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
$25 through Sept. 16; $75 from Sept. 18-30