Love hurts — quite literally, in the Manhattan Theater Club’s highly physicalized revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play “Fool for Love.” The production originated last year at the Williamstown Theater Festival, which accounts for the easy rapport between Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda as the battling lovers whose unbreakable bond of love and hate have made their lives a living hell. This may not be the definitive production of this iconic play, but director Daniel Aukin has done a thoroughly professional job.
Shepard’s assault-and-battery love story felt a lot more immediate thirty years ago, when the writer-turned-movie-star had recently separated from his first wife to start a new relationship with Jessica Lange. At the time, Shepard talked about “the absolute hell” of falling in love, a human condition he called “terrible and impossible.” That cri de coeur infuses the play with its dual sense of desire and despair.
The tormented lovers in “Fool for Love” are a broken-down cowboy named Eddie (Rockwell, wonderfully at ease in the role) and his beaten-down girlfriend May (Tony Award winner Arianda, exhausted from battle). May has been hiding out in a ratty motel in the Mojave Desert. It’s the kind of place where you go to blow your brains out. The kind of place where a wheezy ghost known only as The Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss, perfectly cast) sits on the porch to watch.
Eddie has finally tracked May down to this hellhole, and having driven 2,480 miles to find her, he’s determined to bring her back to their trailer in Wyoming. She resists — and the battle lines are drawn.
You get a strong sense that this scene has played itself out many times before, like a painful ritual that must be repeated until one or both of them collapse. These ritualized couplings (carefully choreographed by David S. Leong) consist mainly of one lover throwing the other against the wall or across the bed — although Eddie adds his signature touch of twirling a lasso normally used to subdue farm animals. His legs bowed and his posture a perpetual slouch, Rockwell is so genuinely invested in this cowboy role that anyone would take him for the real thing.
In between the bruising body contact, Eddie and May devour each other with fierce kisses. Along with all this body-slamming and lip-bruising, there is also dialogue, and some of the language is pure Sam Shepard gold. Like the anecdote the Old Man tells about finding himself in the middle of a herd of cows, or when Eddie joins him in recollecting their family drama. Rockwell and Weiss mine this old gold like prospectors who just got lucky.
But “Fool for Love” is far more physical than other plays by Shepard, and physicality is Arianda’s strong suit. The actress has a remarkably supple back, which she uses in expressive ways — curled in on itself like a beaten puppy, or hunched in a corner like a rabid dog. Long legs, strong body, she’s battle-ready and built for slamming doors (Ryan Rumery had the fun job of amplifying the sound) and kicking her lover in the groin.
Actors love this play, as do student audiences. And if laid-back Rockwell and body-conscious Arianda don’t quite have their acts together, Shepard is served well enough to satisfy his fan base.