Fool For Love at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
The Manhattan Theatre Club’s Fool For Love at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre has the same energy as a bomb when the counter hits zero. Taking place over the course of a single night, Sam Shepard’s play tells the story of Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and May (2012 Tony Award winner Nina Arianda) as they struggle between their love for each other and the heartbreak in their past. Witness to this struggle is Martin (Tom Pelphrey), a “nice guy” character that arrives mid-action to take May to the movies. As he becomes pulled into the course of events, Martin provides a contrast to the intensely emotional May and Eddie, giving the audience a representative within the story and supplying first Eddie and then May with a reason to each reveal their version of the back-story.
The fourth character, The Old Man, spends most of the show sitting in a chair outside the motel room in which the action takes place, highlighted by a porch light. He seems to act from within the memory of May and Eddie, rather than being physically “real” to the other characters. Early in the play, The Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) identifies himself as May and Eddie’s father. Yet neither his story, Eddie’s, nor May’s agree; each contradicts the others, forcing the audience to question everything, The unreliability of the characters adds to the tension of the play, making it impossible for the audience to know what is real.
The performances of all four actors are phenomenal, particularly those of Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda. Rockwell’s version of Eddie is an archetypal picture of a cowboy, complete with Stetson and lasso. He confidently struts around May’s motel room, yet this confidence is undercut but its own studied air, making the audience wonder if this is Eddie’s true persona or another façade. This feeling of falsity is supported by May, the match to Eddie’s cowboy: a beautiful woman whose the troubled past that has come back to haunt her. Arianda brings the character out of this stereotype with her use of precise physicality and a kind of frenzied, raw emotion that counterpoints Eddie’s relative stillness.
Although the play was clearly written for a much smaller theater, scenic designer Dane Laffrey has managed to retain the necessary feeling of confinement; the feeling that the characters’ emotions are too big for the space. To accomplish this feat, Laffrey literally boxed the actors in. The motel room in which the action of the play takes place has been constructed onstage, complete with three walls and a ceiling. Laffrey actually used the large space to his advantage by leaving the stage around the motel room empty, emphasizing the small size of the playing space and the surrounding emptiness.
Justin Townsend’s lighting design fits seamlessly with the set, despite the difficulty of lighting a set with a ceiling. The darkness of the space around the motel room isolates the action, making it feel like an untouchable bubble of time. The combination of using both lighting fixtures one might expect to find in a motel room and theatrical lighting instruments from outside the box creates an uncertainty about the reality of actions of the play. At key moments, an eerie pattern of light and shadow is created on the motel floor by the lights shining through the ceiling. Since this would not have been possible had the motel room been real and the ceiling solid, it serves to further confuse the boundary between imagination and reality.
Sound, designed by Ryan Rumery, also played a key role in the production. At both the opening and closing of the show there was a moment in which the stage was filled with red light. This was accompanied by a huge, shuddering roar of sound. At the beginning, the light and the sound end abruptly and the audience feels as though it were landing in the silent, still motel room after falling a huge distance. At the end, the light and sound are immediately followed by a void of black. Not only are the sound effects extraordinary, the acoustic quality of the set and props creates another level of complexity and unreality. Every slamming door sounds ten times louder than you expect it to, drawing attention to the hollow space around the motel room.
Director Daniel Aukin has handled Shepard’s slippery play masterfully, making clear choices yet allowing the story of the play to remain elusive and up to interpretation by the audience. Most importantly, Aukin did not shy away from the silences and moments without dialogue, instead stretching them and allowing them to fill the play with tension. Aukin played with reality and audience’s assumptions, carefully balancing Fool For Love between realistic action and the possibility that the three characters inside the motel room might actually be constructs of the Old Man’s imagination. The inability to know what was and wasn’t true expanded the feeling of tension beyond the characters’ sphere and into the audience, intensifying every moment.