After the polemical state-of-the-American-nation metaphor of Sam Shepard’s most recent play The God of Hell from 2004 that received its British premiere at the Donmar Warehouse last year, the US playwright's The Late Henry Moss from four years earlier is now reaching the Almeida stage, where artistic director Michael Attenborough is pursuing a programme that combines European with regular American work.
The play is a refreshing return to the “other”, more familiar Shepard: a world of long-estranged brothers who are suddenly reunited to an inevitably warring result in which old resentments are stoked up and reignited, in the manner of True West (one of his best-ever plays) but laced through with a lacerating wit and a bracing engagement with its characters' scarred, scared lives.
The play originally premiered in 2000 in the author’s own San Francisco production starring Nick Nolte and Sean Penn as the brothers. I saw it then and thought that, though the actors notably lacked stage experience, they fittingly gave the play a dark (though in Nolte’s case, not always audible) sense of danger. This is indeed a compelling black comedy drama about the younger brother’s attempts to get at the truth of how and why his alcoholic, bullying father suddenly died, and to find out just how much his older brother, who got to the scene first, actually knows.
As we're drawn into this potentially grim family saga, Shepard pushes the comedy of death to a level that we have since become accustomed to from TV's Six Feet Under. And, as with that wonderful series, the joy of it lies in how it's played to a tersely understated level that resonates with real feeling even as it disguises that feeling in ready laughter. This is definitely the funniest Shepard play for some time – and certainly far funnier than The God of Hell.
But it's also a play of real people, not just cartoon caricatures; and it is given real flesh and blood by Attenborough’s ideally cast production. Brendan Coyle’s Earl (the role originally played by Nolte) is alternately a picture of rage and guilt, a man who has long suppressed a dark secret of running away at a critical family time. And he's very much his father’s older son physically, too: you can imagine him turning into Trevor Cooper’s imposing redneck Henry, whom we meet in flashback scenes.
Coyle is beautifully partnered by the bewildered intensity of Andrew Lincoln as his younger brother Ray. There’s also a hilarious turn from Flaminia Cinque as the father’s final fling and mistress Conchalla, while Jason Watkins as a cab driver and Simon Gregor as the kindly neighbour Esteban, who had their own roles in the father’s life, are also terrific.
The Late Henry Moss offers a potent, heady brew of sibling relationships, full of the kind of menace and mystery that makes a Shepard play often feel somewhere between Mamet and Pinter. But let's not undermine this remarkable playwright through too much comparison - he’s also very much his own man, who has mapped out his own indisputable territory.