Thirty years after Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” closed Off-Broadway, the short play is making its Broadway debut, starring Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell as two Westerners caught in a violent push-pull relationship.
Some continue to see the play as both explosive and deep; a contemporary Greek tragedy and cutting-edge experimental theater; gripping as performance while mythic in meaning, a metaphor for the desiccated American West and the dysfunctional American family — a meditation on love as a gunfight at the not-OK corral.
But what I saw at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater was a Punch and Judy show for the old-school avant-garde. “Fool for Love” struck me as little more than an impressive acting exercise and the theatrical equivalent of a low-budget action flick. It’s an eye-catching trailer trash tango.
Yes, there is skill in Shepard’s writing, and solid talent in the four-member cast. But did it add up to depth and brilliance? Not for me.
It’s hard to figure out what to blame. Is it Daniel Aukin’s direction of this production; the lack of believably intense passion between Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda; the play’s staging in a too-vast Broadway theater; the marketing of this brief work as “a classic”? Was I affected by the recent protests against the Manhattan Theatre Club’s testosterone-heavy season of which “Fool For Love” is the opening production?
Or is it just that I’ve seen this play before, I’ve seen better plays by Sam Shepard, and I’ve seen later, better plays by those who seem influenced by Sam Shepard (such as Tracy Letts)?
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
Eddie and May are battling in a run-down motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert. This is not their first time at the rodeo. (Eddie apparently works as a cowboy in a rodeo.) Their relationship goes back 15 years, to high school. As the play begins, Eddie has driven 2,480 miles to be back with May, as he tells her repeatedly. They accuse each other of two-timing and abandonment. “Fifteen years I’ve been a yo-yo for you,” she says. She orders him to leave, and begs him to stay. He strokes her tenderly, with bandaged bloody hand. They kiss; she knees him in the groin; he lassoes her.
Two other actors have parts in the play. Tom Pelphrey portrays Martin, a comically dense but sweet maintenance man who arrives to take May on a date. He serves as a device so that Eddie and May can tell a stranger conflicting accounts of their relationship. Gordon Joseph Weiss is the Old Man, who sits surreally at the edge of the stage – not really in the motel room, although Eddie does once hand him a drink. His purpose is to hint how perverted Eddie and May’s relationship is (Eddie eventually explains in full to Martin) – and also to let us know that their mutual destructiveness (it seems too mild to call it foolishness) goes back at least a generation. This is apparently what prompts people to liken Shepard’s one-act to Sophocles (not just their doomed fate but the Old Man as Greek chorus.)
There is also another character, the Countess, who drives by the motel, but we only see the headlights of her car, and hear some scary noise. There’s no actual actress playing her.
Kudos go to the set designer Dane Laffrey, lighting designer Justin Townsend and sound designer Ryan Rumery for seamlessly combining the surrealism with the naturalism, and enhancing the tension.
Sam Rockwell is a reliable and appealing movie actor; maybe now that he’s mastered his lassoing skills we’ll see him in more Westerns. His only previous foray on Broadway was in Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, which suffered from a similar surfeit of violence. Nina Arianda was mesmerizing in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, and it seems clear there’s been a search for a role that would be as meaty. But Vanda/Wanda in Venus is a character capable of subtle shades and lightning quick transitions, from klutzy to sophisticated, vulnerable to domineering, sensuous to dangerous. May in ‘Fool for Love’ goes from violent to needy and back again. There are better, more layered roles out there for Nina Arianda. We’re not fools for wanting to see her in them.
It’s interesting that Shepard’s “Fool for Love” is appearing in the same season as Pinter’s “Old Times.” Both are pessimistic plays about love, both put a low priority on clarity, and both are little more than an hour long. I suspect Broadway producers were attracted to their length. Yes, it means that theatergoers are paying up to two dollars a minute, but it allows them to get their officially authorized classic cutting-edge culture in small doses and beat traffic.
Fool for Love
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Daniel Aukein
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey
Costume design by Anita Yavich
Lighting design by Justin Twonsend
Sound design by Ryan Rumery
Movement and fights by David S. Leong
Cast: Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell. Tom Pelphry, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $75 to $150
Fool for Love is scheduled to run through December 13, 2015