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Fool for Love

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Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., New York, NY 10036 40.759961 -73.986312
nr. Eighth Ave.  See Map | Subway Directions Hopstop Popup
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Advance Tickets Recommended


Daniel Aukin


Nina Arianda, Sam Rockwell, Tom Pelphrey, Gordon Joseph Weiss

Nearby Subway Stops

C, E at 50th St.; 1 at 50th St.

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Note: Show times vary; check the website for details.

The drug-addict mother, the fictional son, the defective airplane parts: Secrets are at the core of many great American plays. Sometimes they are secrets kept by one character from the others, or from the outer world; the drama is in the revelation of what the audience already knows. Other times, though, the audience is the dupe, the playwright springing his secret like a sex toy to juice up the proceedings. (I’m looking at you, Neil LaBute.) One of the mysterious achievements of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love, only now having its Broadway debut, is the way it combines these two seemingly incompatible modes of withholding in a story whose point is the huge damage caused by a lack of information. When the withholding and revelation are handled as adroitly as they are in Daniel Aukin’s terrific staging for the Manhattan Theatre Club, Fool for Love acquires the force of Greek tragedy — one Greek tragedy in particular.

I’m not trying to be coy, but it’s difficult to write about this kind of play without giving away its legitimate surprises. In Fool for Love, it takes about half of the 70-minute running time for the real situation to sink in, and it is so subtly prepared for that you almost don’t recognize the moment of recognition. At first you think you are getting a typical story of can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-without-you love, straight from a country-Western song. May (Nina Arianda) and Eddie (Sam Rockwell) are longtime lovers whose shtick involves violent need and frequent attempts to pull away from each other’s gravity, to no avail. The rise of the dirty-looking curtain finds the pair in the midst of one of their frequent explosive recoils, Eddie having returned after a months-long disappearance (he’s a stuntman) during which May tried yet again to reestablish herself without him. In a town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in the bleakest motel room ever, they drink, fight, and make out; at one point Eddie even ropes May like a heifer. This has been going on for 15 years, since they met in high school, with cataclysmic results.

Two other characters gradually force the story, and the play, into wider orbit. The one known as the Old Man has, at first, an uncertain role in the proceedings; he sits in a wooden chair to the side of the action, both in the room and outside it, both in and out of the story. The other is Martin, a local maintenance worker who evidently has a date to take May to the movies. The arrival of Nice Normal Guy allows for some comic relief — Martin is no match for these two vicious cats — and also the explicit reveal. Beyond that, he is a model of a different kind of life, a life in which uncomplicated gentleness is possible because one’s past is not a prison.

Eddie: What kinda people do you hail from anyway, Martin?
Martin: Me? Uh — I don’t know. I was adopted.
Eddie: Oh. You must have a lotta problems then, huh?
Martin: Well — not really, no.
Eddie: No? You orphans are supposed to steal a lot, aren’t ya? Shoplifting and stuff. You’re also supposed to be the main group responsible for bumping off our presidents.
Martin: Really? I never heard that.
Eddie: Well, you oughta read the papers, Martin.

Eddie isn’t toying with Martin just because his dreadful need for May has turned him into a sadist; he also cannot fathom, and even finds abnormal, an idea of family that is not mired in agony. We identify with Martin because Shepard is doing the same thing to us: We are the Nice Normal Guy foils to his story about a condition that, however outré it may at first seem, is, for him, a foundational American, and beyond that human, problem. Look hard enough, and we are all trapped in the web of what we don’t know, or didn’t know until too late.  

This is a complicated stance for a play to take and maintain, requiring the kind of delicacy in performance and staging that Shepard’s work, with its violence and quasi-mysticism, does not often get. Here it does. The production, already excellent when presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2014, has only improved. Physically, it is just about perfect, especially the lighting design by Justin Townsend, which creates its poetic effects (as the play does) from the most concrete situations. Arianda’s alternately spitfire and limpetlike fierceness has rarely been channeled as effectively, and Rockwell, a string bean in a cowboy hat, with a mean lasso and a mortifying chicken dance, brings tremendous vulnerability to a role often played as a brick. As the Old Man, Gordon Joseph Weiss makes what is literally a peripheral part feel central (he’s got an amazing voice), and Tom Pelphrey, the only newcomer to the cast, manages the trick — both an acting trick and a life trick — of being stalwart and unassuming at the same time. You feel almost sick for him, drawn into this snake pit of impossible love, and then, for the same reason, you feel almost sick for yourself.

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