New York City Theater
"Fool for Love"
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
You don’t expect to find Greek tragedy on the edge of the Mojave Desert. But here it is, in Manhattan Theater Club’s pounding revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” Incest, bigamy, the sins of the father, primal curse, retribution, catharsis – it’s all here, proving that Shepard has always been mistaken for a playwright more macho than profound.
His great theme is the decline of the West, equated with the decline of the family. For Shepard, also, love takes on varying permutations. Indeed, the published play quotes Archbishop Anthony Blum: “The proper response of love is to accept it. There is nothing to do.”
So it is with May and Eddie, lovers from high school on. That they can’t get enough of each other, while alternately splitting and re-uniting, is clear from the outset.
May now lives in a cramped, low-rent motel room to escape from Eddie. But he’s found her: “I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he says, as she kisses him one minute, knees him in the groin the next. Their push–pull game of love is observed by characters named The Old Man, who sits throughout just out of the setting’s frame, and by the easy-going Martin, May’s date for the evening.
Outside this claustrophobic room, Eddie’s current flame apparently drives up in her Mercedes, an explosion occurs, horses go wild. But the real drama is both internal and eternal: the quest for truth, the role of heritage and the curse of the past.
The play approaches tragedy, but skirts it because these are truly unpleasant, unheroic people, without awareness. They try to pin themselves down but are unable to break out of their roles. May will continue to flee; Eddie will continue to revert to irresponsibility, lassoing objects, including May herself. Stuck in their pasts, neither will grow.
The evening is acted with stunning ferocity. Just to see the wonderful Nina Arianda in anything is a treat. The Tony-winning actress (for her sensational turn in “Venus in Fur”), stretches her acting muscles as the pitiful, frustrated May. In her too-tight red dress, her long legs like a welcoming spider, she’s both entrapping and defenseless.
Sam Rockwell gives Eddie a childlike vulnerability that makes his poses seem more roles acquired than come by naturally. You can feel the hurt behind the bravado.
Gordon Joseph Weiss is mesmerizing as the Old Man, understanding all too well what will forever haunt May and Eddie. At the other extreme, Tom Pelphrey’s Martin observes the couple more objectively, misperceiving their relationship. It’s a captivating portrait of a compassionate man out of his element.
Daniel Aukin’s dynamic direction, while faithful to the script, adds layers of sensitivity. Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, Justin Townsend’s lighting, Anita Yavich’s costumes, Ryan Runnery’s sound design and David S. Leong’s movement and fight choreography place the work in the realm of myth. Yet, in this rendering, Shepard’s characters are brought down to size, the better to discover their soft underbellies.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 19, 2015