Friday, October 09, 2015

Fool For Love

Sam Shepard's Fool For Love is a strange, searing play. Although it takes place in real time, in the stark and unforgiving Western landscape the author so often favors, one cannot shake the feeling that the play is part dream, part nightmare. Does the dusty motel room occupied by May (Nina Arianda) truly exist? Is her long-lost cowboy lover, Eddie (Sam Rockwell), recently returned from a long absence, a figment of her imagination? And who, exactly, is the old man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) who haunts the periphery?

The weirdness that can make this work thrilling also renders its execution beastly. The two central actors need to be in perfect syncopation; the play's single act (70 minutes) must unfurl at a breathless clip. The director must strike a delicate balance between realism and fantasy. Robert Altman took too heavy a hand in the 1985 film version, starring Shepard and Kim Basinger. When watched today, it comes across as an unintentional comedy. A 2006 London production starring Juliette Lewis drew poor reviews. What, then, would be the fate of its long-awaited Broadway debut, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, under the direction of Daniel Aukin?

photo: Joan Marcus

In short, it's sensational. From the moment the dingy fluorescent motel lights illuminate, the viewer is immersed in Shepard's world, and the two leading actors fully command their difficult roles. An actor of focused intensity, Rockwell is an ideal Eddie. The character encompasses the Marlboro Man's laconic cowboy ethos and the showmanship of a rodeo roper, both of which this talented performer puts across with perfect control.

Arianda is not perfectly cast as May, which makes her superb performance all the more impressive. Based on a few early line readings, I worried that her May would be too cerebral, inappropriately upper crust. Thankfully, I was wrong. When she hits her stride, Arianda taps into the feral nature that Eddie draws out of May. Tall and striking, with an endlessly expressive face, she is a match for Rockwell's Eddie in every way -- and this is a play that works best when the two stars are on equal footing.

Weiss brings a David Lynch eeriness to The Old Man, while smartly avoiding camp. As May's would-be suitor Martin, Tom Pelphrey is appropriately earnest. Aukin keeps the play moving at a fast clip, yet never sacrifices the thrill that comes from its revelations. It's a testament to Shepard's skill that so much of the play can still feel genuinely shocking 35 years after it premiered. With this phenomenal production, Fool For Love rightfully takes its place as one of the most important American plays of its generation. -- by Cameron Kelsall

[purchased discounted ticket, second row orchestra]

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