It’s shaping up to be a great Sam Shepard season in New York – this high-octane Fool for Love on Broadway will be followed in February by the New Group’s revival of Buried Child at Signature. Fine by me – I’ve loved Shepard’s muscular, poetic, elliptical plays since I first encountered them as a college student.
I was surprised I took to Shepard as I did. I’m about as far from a cowboy as a person can be. But I am a Southern Californian, as is Shepard, mostly (an Illinois transplant, he grew up in Duarte). More to the point, I was drawn to his elegiac sense of the disappearing west – a wondrously rugged, lawless place of mythic individualism, rapidly being swallowed by banal suburbia. In Shepard’s plays, what’s left of that west is vestigial – but the remaining fragments are intensely important.
That’s one way to think about Fool for Love, a throbbing, up-close study of a troubled relationship (if there’s a more heterosexual play, I don’t know it!). It’s not my favorite Shepard – I prefer the larger format family sagas (Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind). But I recognize its greatness – also its deeper connection to the Shepard wilderness.
By Shepard standards, at least, Fool for Love initially seems fairly straightforward. But isn’t – and in production, it’s amazingly difficult to get right. The balance of realism, naturalism and surrealism; the unreliability of its many stories; the old man who is both commentator and mysterious character – all these are challenges. And we haven’t even gotten to the critically important chemistry between Fool’s principal characters, Eddie and May.
This often-electric production of Fool for Love – which began in Williamstown – gets it right. It’s the second work I’ve seen by director Daniel Aukin (the other was Bad Jews at Roundabout), and once again I’m impressed with his mastery of character work. There are flashier directors around, but Aukin’s productions deliver an exceptional level of actor work. (Plus I’m not sure a “showy” Fool for Love is what I want, though there’s plenty of visual pizzazz here in Dane Laffrey’s imagistic scene design, and Justin Townsend’s moody lighting.)
I was especially taken with Aukin’s subtle treatment of the Old Man (a wonderfully gritty performance by Gordon Joseph Weiss). Placed in a chair at the side of the stage, in a space that is simultaneously inside and outside the action, the character becomes at once present and absent – it’s just right. The secondary male role of Martin, May’s hapless boyfriend (that’s not quite the right word, but I don’t know what would be) also makes more of an impression here than he often does. In actor Tom Pelphrey’s immensely likeable performance, Martin is puppy-dog sweet – but also befuddled, even dim.
Pelphrey’s boyishness is clearly no threat to Eddie – but in this context, whose would be?
The Eddie here is Sam Rockwell, whose electrifying performance is the production’s biggest asset. He may be the Sam Shepard actor I’ve always hoped for, though in at least one sense, he’s off-beat casting – Rockwell is 47, more than 15 years older than his May (Nina Arianda). If anything, his age adds an intriguing element – underneath the bravado, Rockwell’s Eddie is bone-weary. Rarely raising his voice above a soft drawl, he’s utterly riveting.
Riveting, too, is a word for Nina Arianda – but I’m less convinced. She’s a fine actress and makes a nuanced, emotionally-charged May. But Arianda’s calling card – here and elsewhere – is her sex appeal, which is front and center at all times. You can see it even in the production photos.
On the surface, this should be make her right for May, but ultimately it’s also the problem – sexual unrest is so deeply etched into the character writing that we need an actress who makes it part of the subtext – not one who wears it like a medal. The attractive but less glamorous Kathy Baker, who created the role, seems more right to me – as does Lauren Ambrose, who was first announced for this production, but subsequently withdrew.
There’s no doubt, though, that sparks fly in this Fool for Love. For many, the major appeal will be the metaphoric bonfire created by its two stars – for me, it’s the deeper shivers I get from Rockwell’s brilliant performance, and Shepard’s profound script.
Fool for Love, Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, through 13 December. foolforlovebroadway.com