By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 21, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Keep your shirt on: This So-Called Disaster is Michael Almereyda’s low-budget documentary about nothing more cataclysmic than the process of staging a play. And since the playwright in question is Sam Shepard, and the actors involved include Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson, ticket sales are never in doubt. The production, ”The Late Henry Moss,” premiered in San Francisco in the fall of 2000; the docu’s title refers to the tempestuous family history that has shaped so many of Shepard’s most famous theatrical explorations of roiling American manhood.

Almereyda, who cast the playwright as the melancholy Dane’s ghostly father in his striking film adaptation of Hamlet four years ago, accepted Shepard’s invitation to document the staging of ”Henry Moss” thinking, as the documentarian has written, that he’d use ”half- whispered narration — like what you’d get in a nature program about lemurs in Madagascar, tracking the elusive creatures in their natural habitat.” And although the actual whispering is left off the soundtrack — embroidered instead with the music of invaluable composer T Bone Burnett — Almereyda’s fascination with creative creatures and their mysterious ways is abundantly clear. And distracting.

Shepard gives his cast a few notes and runs them through an interesting, quick-time table reading, but mostly he watches, strikingly photogenic in repose, while his players do the various things actors do to find and develop their characters, as common and marvelous an exercise of craft as any performed by a plumber or piano tuner. But the movie stardom of most of these players actually gets in the way of our being able to feel the exciting averageness of putting on a show. Penn reads a newspaper when he’s out of a scene! Nolte works hard to learn his lines! The information is smaller than it appears on screen.

”Disaster” also includes interviews with the principals, most handsomely with Shepard, who talks about his hard-drinking father, whose death inspired the play. Photographed on a rustic porch and framed by a rugged landscape, the Shepard scenes cop to honest movie glamour in a film that pretends it’s not about glamour at all.