Film

All Sizzle and No Steak: Sam Shepard’s ‘Fool for Love’ Comes to Broadway

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Despite its desert setting, the first Broadway staging of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love doesn’t give off much heat. And that’s a problem, because the 1983 play about an incendiary forbidden passion — which won multiple Obies in 1984 — depends on credible pyrotechnics between its tormented twosome.

In a ramshackle motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert, half-sibling lovers Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and May (Nina Arianda) reunite tempestuously — with recriminations, wild promises, and avowals of desperate passion. He has traversed the blasted landscapes of the West to find her; she’s hiding from their inevitable squalls. Within the fleabag lodging’s pasteboard walls, they crash into each other amorously and violently. She’s leaving for a date with a nice local man; Eddie hangs around to humiliate him.

Meanwhile, inhabiting an adjacent reality, the desiccated Old Man (Joseph Gordon Weiss), voice of fate and memory, hangs out in the corner. Perhaps he’s alive; more likely he’s a ghost or a delusion, commenting on the proceedings like a love sportscaster — albeit one with a bias toward the male side.

As Eddie, Rockwell renders the rudiments of a tormented avatar of cowboy masculinity but can’t scale the poetic heights. His Eddie is a slouching, hip-cocking human drawl, always primed to strike another iconic pose. (He can also lasso a chair like nobody’s business.) This is a good place to start: Shepard delights in departing from such archetypes to unforeseeable territory. But when it comes to showing the poetry inside the cowpoke, Rockwell transforms Shepard’s fateful nighttime visitation into one more drunken ramble.

Aukin’s production gets queasy whenever Shepard’s text reaches outside realism’s limits.

Arianda, miscast, remains trapped outside Shepard’s imagination, looking in. As May, a bruised femme fatale chafing against the curse of a lifelong passion, Arianda rants and raves to little effect. Her wavering accent and showy tantrums don’t express hard-bitten Western desperation so much as a drunken East Village Friday night.

With help from Justin Townsend’s vivid lighting design, director Daniel Aukin suggests the archetypal foundations of the play with compositions reminiscent of sepia-toned photographs. Between scenes, actors, limned by sickly light, rest in attitudes suggestive of Nan Goldin’s bleary early mornings — a ballad of sibling sexual dependency.

These images aside, Aukin’s production gets queasy whenever Shepard’s text reaches outside realism’s limits. Like most of Shepard’s major works, Fool for Love has a more-than-friendly relationship with melodrama and cinema; its tropes are drawn equally from pop-culture and mythic reservoirs. This is a battle between dreams and reality, and masculine and feminine principles — a state of nature that’s nasty, brutish, and destined to continue indefinitely. (This Manichaean view of male-female relations may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can’t pretend it’s not there.)

The centerpiece of the play features two long arias in which the lovers retrace the origins of their passion. The speeches are Fool for Love‘s emotional heart — plangently nostalgic — and a clue that Shepard is after something richer and stranger than mere psychology. Lush imagery opens out into the expansive landscape denied us by the play’s confined interior setting. And the characters conjure memories with an openheartedness that belies their tough exteriors. It’s Shepard at his most lyrical. But Rockwell and Arianda constrain the imaginative flights to bitter tableside confessions, tequila bottle close at hand.

Fools for realism, these lovers never make it outside the motel room and into the vast night beyond.

[Editor’s note: In May of 1983, Fool for Love had its Off-Broadway premiere at the Circle Repertory Theatre. Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote of the production, “The richness and excitement of the play are compounded by the fact that this is the first time New York has seen one of Shepard’s plays in his own staging…. It’s possible to be slightly sick with envy at the fact that our most gifted playwright, already known as a fine film actor, a decent songwriter, and a tolerable rock drummer, turns out to be — at least for his own work — a superb director as well.” We have uploaded a PDF of Feingold’s review to Scribd, where you can read it in its entirety. Click here to read Michael Feingold’s Fool for Love review from June 7, 1983.] 

Fool for Love

Directed by Daniel Aukin

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

261 West 47th Street

212-239-6200, foolforlovebroadway.com