A game for all the family it ain’t. Sam Shepard’s 1983 play “Fool for Love” is beloved of producers for fairly obvious reasons. It’s a short, sharp shocker, a brawling, ballsy 75-minute modern tragedy with two knockout roles, longtime lovers May and Eddie, who also happen to be half-siblings. And who better to play them for the latest London revival than Hollywood wild child Juliette Lewis and rising film-star hunk Martin Henderson? Yet the play is not a duet — it’s a quartet that works only when all four characters are balanced. That’s where this fitful production goes awry.
Furiously love-torn May and Eddie are the fugitive kind, not from the law but from each other. Like magnets, they either repel or slam into each other, locked lip to lip, thigh to thigh. They’ve been ricocheting off each other for going on 15 years, since they met toward the end of high school and fell in lust, only to discover too late that they shared a father, the Old Man sitting at the side of the stage (Larry Lamb).
Rodeo stuntman Eddie has driven 2,480 miles to a lousy motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert to meet May again. She’s irresistibly drawn to him but, determined not to be fooled again, has fixed a date with Martin (Joe Duttine), a man she can brandish in front of him as (false) proof that she doesn’t need Eddie.
Everything starts well. Bunny Christie’s motel set is the kind of place even roaches would avoid.Lighting designer Mark Henderson supplies further tawdriness with winking pink neon outside the bedroom window.
At the end of her bed and her rope, Lewis looks like an exhausted gazelle. Stick-thin and strung out on shredded hope, she initially refuses to respond to Eddie’s baiting; gathering herself together, she lashes out. Everything is a contest for these two, whose mutual first instinct is to fight for fear of the intimacy that terrifies and thrills them.
Skittering and scissoring about in heels and clinging scarlet dress, Lewis accuses Eddie of being gutless and feeling guilty, both of which characteristics Henderson conveys via swaggering physicality. His low-slung, rangy strut is in highly effective contrast to his underlying emotional and sexual frustration. She refers to him as “Marlboro man” and, head to foot in denim, he certainly lives up to it. The depth of his performance is such that when he says, “My feelings are very easily damaged,” you believe him.
Whenever things get torrid between them, the casting makes complete sense. The problems start when the focus widens to include the other characters.
Posner places the Old Man stubbornly at the side of the stage. We swiftly realize, however, that he’s a fantasy, a symbol of the couple’s past and their current, helpless need. Lamb has been directed not to look at or engage with them until very late in the action, a decision that maroons him and puts unnecessary strain on his monologues.
Similarly, a miscast Duttine as the hapless Martin never seems to engage with the nightmare unfolding in front of him. Admittedly, his character is supposed to be none too smart, but if you turned up for a date only to have your head hurled against the wall by an unknown rival, would you sit around beaming hopefully like Barney Rubble on Valium?
With the characters not meshing, the temperature drops and the tension droops. And as the play proceeds, it becomes clear that Lewis’ feral desperation has its limitations. Her voice has the dedicated sneer of Sandra Bernhard, which puts edge on the rapid-fire slinging matches but kills the poetry of Shepard’s crucial long speeches.
By the end of the play, there’s a conflagration outside the room that should symbolize the unbearable heat within. Posner lights the sparks, but his failure to build upon the rhythm of the writing means that fire dies too soon.