'Fool for Love': Theater Review

Fool For Love Still - P 2015
Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Where's the burn?

Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell star in the Broadway debut of Sam Shepard's 1983 drama, a twisted American West romance with shades of ancient Greek tragedy.

The crumbling facade of the American family has often taken a battering in the iconoclastic works of Sam Shepard, with special punishment reserved for the sins of the fathers. His 1983 drama, Fool for Love, traces a line from the disenfranchised cowboys and frontier gals of a figurative Old West rendered as a ghost town of the mind, all the way back to the doomed children of Greek tragedy. Anyone who saw the play's original production, which premiered at San Francisco's Magic Theatre before moving to off-Broadway with original leads Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, will recall the scorching impact of this tale of once-and-forever lovers, fated to keep flailing against and surrendering to the unbreakable ties that bind them.

So why does Daniel Aukin's very capably executed revival, which comes to Broadway from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, seem so tame? It's partly because the play's power to shock has eroded over the past 32 years, just as its once-bold intersection of reality and fantasy has become more commonplace. Shepard's love of theatrical symbolism limits our immersion in the lives depicted within the walls of a no-frills motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert. That's no fault of the scrupulous shabbiness of Dane Laffrey's set or the atmospherically jaundiced pall of Justin Townsend's lighting.

But there's also a nagging imbalance in the casting. As erstwhile lovers Eddie and May, Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda earned raves after stepping into the Williamstown production at short notice when original leads Chris Pine and Lauren Ambrose dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. While there's no denying their combustible chemistry, I couldn't get past the impression that only Rockwell seems a natural inhabitant of Shepard country.

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Whether smashing May against a wall or practicing his lasso skills on chairs and bedposts in a lazily ineffectual display of his character's machismo, Rockwell's Eddie looks right at home in his dirty Levi's, spurs and cowboy hat. Or at least as at home as Eddie could look in a world where his home on the range has been downgraded to a tin trailer. The actor's loose physicality, his slyly ingratiating quality, his off-kilter swagger and insouciant humor all add flavor to a guy who has proved a fatal attraction for May since high school. He knows she's bad for him and vice versa, but he can't keep away.

The gifted Arianda exploded onto the New York theater scene in 2010 as the wily, otherworldly actress who ties her director in knots in David IvesVenus in Fur, for which she collected a Tony Award when the play moved to Broadway. As May, who's scraping out an independent living as a cook though she can barely flip an egg, she works her blonde mane and long legs to bewitching effect, proving no less physical a performer than Rockwell. But the volatile characterization seems more studied than lived-in. May clings like a vine to Eddie one minute and then breaks their passionate kiss with a knee to the groin the next, but the desperation behind her push-pull instability in this production is unpersuasive. When Arianda shouts her love and loathing for Eddie while barreling in and out of her bathroom refuge, what we're watching is a miscast actor working very hard, undermining the pathos of a woman gripped by primal emotions she can’t control.

The play is essentially a brawling pas de deux in a once-vast landscape now reduced to a single squalid room. But Shepard stirs two other men into the mix that are as much devices as characters, though both are well played.

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One is Martin (Tom Pelphrey), May's wholesome, none-too-bright date for the evening, whom she encourages to stick around even after Eddie makes things awkward, if only to prove to herself that she has other, less corrosive romantic options. Martin gets to absorb the 15-year history of their love and the late discovery that forever scarred it in twin monologues, the gritty poetry of which remains enthralling. Hovering outside the play's reality but residing firmly in the heads of both May and Eddie is the Old Man (a suitably gravelly Gordon Joseph Weiss). Seated on the sidelines, he comments periodically on the action, his objections increasing as the grim cost of his wandering heart is exposed.

The stage directions specify that the 75-minute play be performed "relentlessly, without a break," and Aukin and his actors hit all the right beats, punctuating the sexually charged action with the loud slamming of doors and bodies. But the heat only occasionally rises above a simmer, and despite all the tequila being gulped onstage, the whole thing feels a tad too correct in Manhattan Theatre Club's bijou Broadway house.

This is a scrappy, sinewy play that probably still can be effective with two perfectly attuned leads in uneasy alignment. But the very same reasons that actors love Shepard so much can also be the undoing of his plays when the audience becomes too aware of the performer to get lost in the playwright's mythic world.

Cast: Nina Arianda, Sam Rockwell, Tom Pelphrey, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Director: Daniel Aukin
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Movement & fight director: David S. Leong
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival