Theatre Review: Fool for Love
Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Broadway—Manhattan Theatre Club
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on November 28, 2015
The current Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love contains many surprises. The first is that it is not essentially a revival: despite what you might think about such a well-known piece, produced around the country for thirty years, and turned into a film, it has never been on Broadway. Fool for Love began in 1983 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, starring Ed Harris & Kathy Baker. Those two tough, terrific actors repeated their roles in the celebrated Off Broadway transfer later that year, and there followed numerous productions in regional theater. Robert Altman directed the movie version with Shepard himself in the male lead, alongside Kim Basinger, in 1985. But this new show, directed by Daniel Aukin, and featuring Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda in the primary roles of battling lovers Eddie and May, and Gordon Joseph Weiss and Tom Pelphrey in key supporting parts, is Fool’s Broadway premiere. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival, it runs until December 13 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street.
If we only know the show in an ancillary way, hearing about it but not versed in it, or if we’ve forgotten it, we expect its tale of an on-again, off-again, feuding couple in a run-down western motel, to be familiar, the fightin’ and a-fuckin’ southern-style prototype man and woman we’ve seen in older shows, Bus Stop, The Rainmaker, Streetcar…, Orpheus Descending, etc. But the play throws us off, mixes in original turns with its clichés, and that’s what sets it apart, making it worth presenting in a major new production on a big stage. Director Aukin’s interpretation plays down the predicted sensuality, the ribald cowboy-tough gal angle, and plays up the metaphysical, the disquieting uncertainty and vagueness of the plot-line. Three quarters of the way through, we understand we’re in a different world than we had anticipated, and this unsettling realization makes for a vibrant and successful theatrical experience.
The work begins as trucker and rodeo roper Eddie arrives at the rustic Mojave Desert motel and is reunited with May, a hard-drinking woman recently employed as a cook. The pair has known each other since high school and maintained a tempestuous relationship through various break-ups and infidelities. May is both determined for Eddie to leave, to start a new life without him, and terrified of his abandoning her. She accuses him of having an affair with a wealthy woman, The Countess, unseen. Eddie taunts May and wants her and when he hears she is waiting for a date, he is jealously incensed. He brings in his rodeo rope and practices lassoing chairs and the bedstand, trying to impress May. All this while, a mysterious, countrified Old Man (Weiss) is sitting off to the side, out of the room, drinking and talking, remembering both man and woman in strange stories from their childhood. It becomes possible that this eccentric may be the father of both Eddie and May.
May and Eddie physically fight and May’s date, dim, amiable yard-man Martin (Pelphrey) bursts in and subdues the trucker. May, mortified, hides in the bathroom. The two men are left alone, and Eddie teases and challenges the suitor. In a tale from the past, Eddie reveals that he is May’s half-brother, and her lover. Martin doesn’t know whether to scoff or be shocked and the play builds to and finishes with an interior and exterior explosion. Eddie, May, the Old Man, and Martin are juxtaposed, exchanged, moving out of and into the motel. This may all be a tormented romantic fantasy, a fever-dream, but whose?
While some productions may take the plot along a straight, standard road, Aukin, who directed Fool For Love previously at Williamstown and has done other Shepard works, including the lesser-known Heartless at New York’s Signature Theatre, slyly manipulates the stereotypical aspects of the piece and thus also manipulates the audience. Eddie and May’s need for each other is kept true and passionate, but there is a self-conscious, knowing feel to the interaction that seems to follow Shepard’s intention that we alternately doubt and buy the lovers’ feelings, believe and yet suspect the validity of the whole western milieu. Just when we think we have the story figured out, the Old Man’s interjections throw us off again and we go searching for the hook and the handle. By the finish, when the Old Man takes the stage and replaces the lovers in the motel, we question this, too, yet simultaneously understand it all as his burning, guilt-ridden phantasm, our daily lifelong regretful prayer of love.
The dualities are showcased here, man-woman, love-hate, reality-fantasy, but instead of being ponderous and didactic, or old hat, here it’s done with a light, tricky hand. There is an improvisatory sense in the dialogue, and Shepard’s background as one of the stars of the downtown 60s-70s absurdist theater scene forms the undulating foundation of the story and interplay. We don’t know what’s coming next and scenes such as Eddie’s interrogation of bumbling Martin, and the monologues by May, Eddie, and the Old Man—excellently written—keep us guessing. Perhaps because we’ve grown used to a 21st century theater and culture that fearfully spells things out, preaching political lessons and wrapping things up in a safe, correct way, we are even more of a hapless mark for Shepard’s game strategy. The audience is the suckers—we are pushed and pulled; the play plays us. Ultimately, we are both victims and beneficiaries, rapt for a fast, engaging 75 minutes.
Sam Shepard was always the earthier, less erudite American cousin to Pinter and Beckett, and Fool for Love has some of The Caretaker and Krapp’s Last Tape in its scroungy, desperate characters, people who hurt any and all by their brutal solipsistic attempts to make sense of existence. It emulates The Homecoming in its shift of focus at the end from the ostensible leads to a supporting player—the mother in Homecoming, the father here. In Fool, this is the startling final discovery: the main man was always lurking nearby and all the clues were there; we should have known but missed it, just like the meaning of life and the perfect love. Shepard, while perhaps a follower of the great past European existentialists, is now a leader as well. His impact is felt in, among others, the contemporary plays of Tracy Letts and Martin McDonagh. Shepard, always too handsome to be a writer, is now more a film actor in the U.S., and his playwriting reputation has fallen somewhat here. His presence now seems greater in Ireland, where some of his new pieces debut and run to acclaim. But this Fool for Love makes it apparent: he’s better than you think.
Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda offer warmth, grit, and humor in their portrayals. Their high-level acting is not one of the surprises. After his charismatic performance in the classic young adult film The Way Way Back, Rockwell could have retired, but he has alternated effectively between movies and the stage, and was last on Broadway in McDonagh’s fun but silly A Behanding in Spokane. Arianda’s work in David Ives’s Venus in Fur was widely lauded, and she has become a popular and consistent stage star. There is an offbeat, thoughtful quality to the pair, both in looks and delivery, and their actor-intelligence keeps them performing within the play, as it were, rather than hoking it up and overwhelming it. Fool for Love is often known for its lusty boisterous sexuality, but here, the director and actors put Eddie and May at arm’s reach much of the time. This resistance keeps the audience on edge, wondering not only if the two will get it together, but if their romance, and they themselves, are actual. When Eddie finally does grab May, it leads to the conflagration, and even that cathartic fire may not satisfy, the play implies, because it happens out-of-sight, offstage, at a confounding distance; really, it may not expiate us of anything at all.
In the secondary roles, Gordon Joseph Weiss has size, menace, is hurt and hurtful as the Old Man; Tom Pelphrey appropriately befuddled when he defends a timid and shaky sense of honor as the yokel Martin.
This reviewer caught Fool for Love near the end of its run, at a matinee in the small Friedman theatre, 650 seats, a perfect venue for a play that has never before travelled uptown. The crowd had its share of celebrities, including Tony Goldwyn of TV’s Scandal and Julia Stiles of the Bourne Identity films. Originally The Biltmore Theatre, built in 1925, the theater fell into disrepair and closed in 1987. It was then renovated and reopened in 2003-2004, renamed in 2008, and is now the home of Manhattan Theatre Club, the famed, highly active not-for-profit company. The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre must be the only Broadway house ever named for a publicist. Another anomaly for a show that thrives on the unexpected.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He recently directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In the summer of 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep.