Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lonesome west

Stacey Fischer and Timothy John Smith get foolhardy in Fool for Love.

Sam Shepard essentially stopped writing a few years after completing Fool for Love (currently being revived at the New Rep), and it's easy from the play to see why. There's a telling sense of repetition in its stew of familiar Shepard tropes: some scenes play like outtakes from Cowboy Mouth, while others are leftovers from Curse of the Starving Class; meanwhile the play's slowly-revealed "secrets" echo True West, with a buried hint of Buried Child. Not that there's anything wrong with that; all artists have their central concerns, not to mention obsessions. But in Fool for Love we can feel Shepard desperately shaking the same old dice in the hope of rolling a new score.

But he comes up snake-eyes, perhaps because his best plays conjured their sense of pop mystery from isolated, surreal juxtapositions. But as Shepard pours all his usual ingredients into a single crucible, his lonesome west begins to feel a bit crowded, and it's clearer that his various obsessions don't quite add up to a vision. This time we get the playwright's usual craving for pop authenticity, his familiar dead-end dream of the West, and of course another dysfunctional family with a poisoned - and poisonous - patriarch. But we also get the confused, "normal" intruder, the seedy motel room, the vengeful wife/mother, and Cain and Abel, and Patti Smith. It's entertaining enough; it plays like Sam Shepard's Greatest Hits - it just doesn't actually add up to a new song.

But the New Rep cast sings its heart out anyway. They have to - Shepard always go gonzo eventually, but Fool for Love starts that way and never lets up. The curtain rises on lovers May and Eddie squaring off against each other in that Seedy Hotel Room Somewhere Out West, locked in the throes of love-hate, unable to hold on to each other but unable to let go, etc. - and not much has changed in their relationship when the curtain falls roughly 80 minutes later. In the meantime, however, the play has morphed into some sort of surreal space-time continuum in which memories - and even themes - converse directly with characters and vice versa. Oddly, this never strikes us as particularly strange; it feels more like a formal inevitability in the umpteenth rewrite of a play we've seen almost as many times before (which is exactly what it is).

Or perhaps we don't have time to ponder such artistic quandaries because director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary keeps things moving so briskly over these conceptual speed bumps; and she's drawn strong, committed work from her ensemble - although perhaps she hasn't wired their performances with quite enough sense of danger. Timothy John Smith gives his all as Eddie, in a rough-and-tumble performance that's charming in its sexy physicality. But he's just a little too wholesome to convince us as a Shepard hero (who must always conceal a fatal flaw). Meanwhile Stacey Fischer is more in touch with her inner demons as May, and offers the production's most accomplished performance - still, she could tap into a growing sense of horror -and maybe even pity - as the play progresses, and reveals the depth of Eddie's fantasies. The central couple gets nicely believable back-up from Andrew Dufresne as the normal guy who wanders into their hellish sexual cul-de-sac; Dufresne even manages to look unfazed when the seemingly ectoplasmic "Old Man" takes center stage. But here the production stumbles anyway, for Joseph Finneral is simply far too likable as this accursed progenitor; he comes off as an eccentric old-timer rather than the poisoned spring from which all these twisted passions have sprung.

And then, alas, there's the set to contend with. Even given the limits of the New Rep's downstairs space, these fine actors deserve better than canvas flats that shake every time someone shuts the door. To be sure, said flimsiness gives some metaphoric dimension to the play's Twilight Zone vibe - that is, until part of the main door actually fell off after a spirited slam. Then, suddenly, we were in the Construction Zone instead.

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