Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 8, 2015
Fool for Love by Sam Shepard. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Scenic design by Dane Laffrey. Costume design by Anita Yavich. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Ryan Rumery. Movement & fights by David S. Leong. Cast: Nina Arianda, Sam Rockwell, Tom Pelphrey, Gordon Joseph Weiss.
For a play whose entire raison d'être is exploring the vital but vicious codependence that can form between two people when they're thrust together under less-than-ideal circumstances, this is something of an impediment. And though you never get the impression that Aukin and his two stars, Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, are doing less than their best, it's not an obstacle that they're able to surmount.
At its heart, this production is irredeemably nice, perhaps the most devastating quality for any Fool for Love. Eddie and May are typically at least as eager to slit each other's throats as rip off each other's clothes (if not more so), and this generally manifests itself physically, with everything from full-out fights to throwing against walls and beyond. (Injuries were reportedly common in the original 1983 Shepard-directed production, which starred Ed Harris and Kathy Whitton Baker, and at least one other production I've encountered left its actors literally battered and bruised.)
Here, except for the aurally enhanced doors, which when slammed reverberate loudly and deeply enough to send a shiver into your soul (the sound designer, well living up to Shepard's scripted dicta, is Ryan Rumery), Rockwell and Arianda may as well be a brother and sister bickering at the dinner table. They engage more in high-level slap fights, that signal to each other and to us that they don't really mean anything they say. It's one thing if Eddie and May know they're playing a game but aren't willing to admit, and something else if, as here, it's all on the surface.
Given that Fool for Love devotes the last third of its 75-minute running time to storytelling (Eddie and May offering different and hardly complementary renderings of their complex personal history, and is marshaled over by an old man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) at the edge of the set who may or may not be the father of one or (gasp) both of them, the surface is the last place any of this should live. Eddie and May have superb reasons for being so twisted up in love and hate, but even so, they can't be taken for granted if the endlessly abrasive words that constitute this evening are to compel.
Words, in fact, seem to cause visible agony to Rockwell's Eddie, as though he's already resigned to their failure and just wants to get on with the inevitable. Fair enough. But from the opening scene, when Arianda's May wraps herself around Eddie's leg in a futile attempt to chain him to her motel room (and her), his diminished confidence translates as an indifference that's honestly grudging rather than tactical.
This continues throughout, too, as Rockwell plays up at every opportunity Eddie's stony, smoky resolve, but fails to show us where it leads. Though this man should be as brutal with his voice as with his hands, Eddie's verbal barbs are not honed to piercing sharpnessRockwell mostly mumbles them out, though occasionally he'll loudly spit instead. You don't accept, as you really have to, that this is a modern-day cowboy without a range, a man who's trying to recapture what's left of the Old West without recognizing that nothing of it is left at all.
Arianda, the skyrocketing, Tony-winning star of Venus in Fur and Born Yesterday, does what Rockwell is aiming for, but much more convincingly. She's in total control of her rage, and knows how to apply it to push all of Eddie's buttons. A single glare or half of a scoffing laugh is all this May needs to get under Eddie's skin, and she's apparently reached the point where she can do it without breaking a sweat. Her every action and facial expression reinforces that this is a man who truly has infected her soul.
But because she and Rockwell are operating on such different wavelengths, Arianda can't make her grand approach mean very much. Instead, they exacerbate the underlying problem, and the duo's latent incompatibility. Weiss and Tom Pelphrey, who plays May's too-rational date for the evening, are both fine, but themselves too low-key to make a dent, as if they aren't sure where they fit into the grand scheme of what's going on, either.
It's possible that this production played better when it originated at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last year. Rockwell and Arianda were both very late replacements and may have brought an added dose of can-do camaraderie that made their onstage relationship work. And probably the set did not feel as disjointed: On Broadway, Dane Laffrey's tiny, oppressive box of a motel room floats, pointlessly and unwanted, on the large Friedman stage, striking another unfortunate note of lifelessness.
The set's being big enough to match its theater wouldn't solve all that ails this Fool for Love, but it might accentuate or promote the kind of urgency and claustrophobia that this rendition so desperately cries out for. After all, heat does tend to dissipate in too much space.