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'Fool for Love' - Romantic Tragedy in the American Southwest

Sam Rockwell in Fool for Love
(©Joan Marcus)

Sam Shepard’s ability to channel a Greek tragedy--like sense of inexorable doom into the modern world never fails to impress. Last year, he intriguingly experimented with the Oedipus myth in A Particle of Dread at Signature Theatre. With his 1983 play Fool for Love, which opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club/Williamstown Theatre Festival revival on Broadway, Shepard doesn’t draw directly on any specific tale from the Greek canon, but as a man and a woman enact a violently romantic pas de deux in a rundown motel room somewhere near the Mojave Desert, the sense that catastrophe (the sort found in Sophocles or Euripides) awaits for them couldn’t be more palpable.

Directed with tautness and simplicity by Daniel Aukin and featuring Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, as the couple Eddie and May, Fool initially appears to be pretty straightforward. The couple has a 15-year, on-again-off-again relationship, and right now, they’re at a moment of reconnecting. Eddie has driven nearly 3,000 miles to find and reclaim her after an infidelity with a woman she derisively has nicknamed “Countess.” And though May ricochets (often literally) between delight and anger at his presence, one has a pretty good sense that she’ll be leaving that motel with him.

There are tricks up Shepard’s dramaturgical sleeve, however. To begin, there’s a guy, known just as “The Old Man.” Played with quiet brusqueness by Gordon Joseph Weiss, he sits in a lawn chair just outside of scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s grim, dilapidated recreation of a motor inn room, a design that looks like a diorama and that makes the claustrophobic pressure cooker atmosphere of the play even more intense. The Old Man’s interjections throughout the play point the way toward its sad conclusion.

To complicate matters further, Shepard also introduces the soft-spoken and slightly dim Martin (amusingly played by Tom Pelphrey). He arrives to take May to the movies, and it’s his presence that forces Eddie and May to confront the secret that binds them.

As ghoulish green light (design by Justin Townsend) pours through the room, Rockwell and Arianda, who share a palpable chemistry, navigate the shifting terrain of the script and the characters’ relationship with ferocious commitment. Her work throughout is superb and climaxes as May delivers with benumbed bewilderment the actual specifics of how she and Eddie first came together. The moment chills.

Rockwell, brandishing a lasso and bottle of tequila, fails to fully convince early on as Eddie tries to impose himself on May with super-macho intensity. It almost feels as if it’s some sort of act that Eddie has adopted. Once Martin has arrived, and Eddie’s demeanor becomes more smart-ass and erudite, Rockwell’s performance deepens tremendously and, curiously, Eddie’s most dangerous weapon proves to be his intellect, fitting for this high-octane play that marries a sense of the classics with the grunge of a Southwestern mythos.

---- Andy Propst

Fool for Love plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com.