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All Sizzle and No Steak: Sam Shepard’s ‘Fool for Love’ Comes to Broadway

Despite its desert setting, the first Broadway staging of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love doesn’t give off much heat. And that’s a problem, because the 1983 play about an incendiary forbidden passion — which won multiple Obies in 1984 — depends on credible pyrotechnics between its tormented twosome.

In a ramshackle motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert, half-sibling lovers Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and May (Nina Arianda) reunite tempestuously — with recriminations, wild promises, and avowals of desperate passion. He has traversed the blasted landscapes of the West to find her; she’s hiding from their inevitable squalls. Within the fleabag lodging’s pasteboard walls, they crash into each other amorously and violently. She’s leaving for a date with a nice local man; Eddie hangs around to humiliate him.

Meanwhile, inhabiting an adjacent reality, the desiccated Old Man (Joseph Gordon Weiss), voice of fate and memory, hangs out in the corner. Perhaps he’s alive; more likely he’s a ghost or a delusion, commenting on the proceedings like a love sportscaster — albeit one with a bias toward the male side.

As Eddie, Rockwell renders the rudiments of a tormented avatar of cowboy masculinity but can’t scale the poetic heights. His Eddie is a slouching, hip-cocking human drawl, always primed to strike another iconic pose. (He can also lasso a chair like nobody’s business.) This is a good place to start: Shepard delights in departing from such archetypes to unforeseeable territory. But when it comes to showing the poetry inside the cowpoke, Rockwell transforms Shepard’s fateful nighttime visitation into one more drunken ramble.

[pullquote]Aukin’s production gets queasy whenever Shepard’s text reaches outside realism’s limits.[/pullquote]

Arianda, miscast, remains trapped outside Shepard’s imagination, looking in. As May, a bruised femme fatale chafing against the curse of a lifelong passion, Arianda rants and raves to little effect. Her wavering accent and showy tantrums don’t express hard-bitten Western desperation so much as a drunken East Village Friday night.

With help from Justin Townsend’s vivid lighting design, director Daniel Aukin suggests the archetypal foundations of the play with compositions reminiscent of sepia-toned photographs. Between scenes, actors, limned by sickly light, rest in attitudes suggestive of Nan Goldin’s bleary early mornings — a ballad of sibling sexual dependency.

These images aside, Aukin’s production gets queasy whenever Shepard’s text reaches outside realism’s limits. Like most of Shepard’s major works, Fool for Love has a more-than-friendly relationship with melodrama and cinema; its tropes are drawn equally from pop-culture and mythic reservoirs. This is a battle between dreams and reality, and masculine and feminine principles — a state of nature that’s nasty, brutish, and destined to continue indefinitely. (This Manichaean view of male-female relations may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can’t pretend it’s not there.)

The centerpiece of the play features two long arias in which the lovers retrace the origins of their passion. The speeches are Fool for Love‘s emotional heart — plangently nostalgic — and a clue that Shepard is after something richer and stranger than mere psychology. Lush imagery opens out into the expansive landscape denied us by the play’s confined interior setting. And the characters conjure memories with an openheartedness that belies their tough exteriors. It’s Shepard at his most lyrical. But Rockwell and Arianda constrain the imaginative flights to bitter tableside confessions, tequila bottle close at hand.

Fools for realism, these lovers never make it outside the motel room and into the vast night beyond.

[Editor’s note: In May of 1983, Fool for Love had its Off-Broadway premiere at the Circle Repertory Theatre. Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote of the production, “The richness and excitement of the play are compounded by the fact that this is the first time New York has seen one of Shepard’s plays in his own staging…. It’s possible to be slightly sick with envy at the fact that our most gifted playwright, already known as a fine film actor, a decent songwriter, and a tolerable rock drummer, turns out to be — at least for his own work — a superb director as well.” We have uploaded a PDF of Feingold’s review to Scribd, where you can read it in its entirety. Click here to read Michael Feingold’s Fool for Love review from June 7, 1983.]

Fool for Love
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
212-239-6200, foolforlovebroadway.com

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Quirky Caucasian Misfits in What Rhymes With America

In Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, director Daniel Aukin crashes Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s fiery virtuosity headlong into a backdrop of quirky Caucasians. True Blood‘s Chris Bauer heads up an assortment of offbeat angst-ers struggling to connect and largely failing (on Laura Jellinek’s set, also predominantly white). But in Randolph’s hands, Gibson’s story, ready-made for a touching Tom McCarthy film (that’s a compliment), gets blown up into a sharp commentary on whiteness and repression.

The play ostensibly concerns Hank (Bauer), a recently divorced, unemployed, and heartbroken economics professor. He negotiates these unpleasant paradigms with his daughter Marlene (Aimee Carrero) through the front door of the place he once lived. (Mom, who never appears in the play, has forbidden her from opening the door to him.) When Hank visits Marlene in the hospital where she volunteers, he meets Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a woman who, as her father dies, asks Marlene to read a handwritten note to him. Hank and Lydia tentatively begin dating.

In the meantime, Hank works as a supernumerary at the local opera house, going on frequent cigarette breaks with Sheryl (Randolph), both clad in cheesy Egyptian or Wagnerian costume. Instead of merely assisting Hank’s reboot like some Oprah-type, Sheryl senses her bond with Hank, and in several multi-layered scenes, she rides a dramatic cavalry toward his heavily defended heart. Her tactics include an intense “practice” makeout session (he doesn’t get it), a demonstration of her love of enjambment (he then uses the technique in a poem for Lydia), and a technically dazzling scene in which Randolph plays Sheryl as she re-creates a failed Lady Macbeth audition. She must also convey that Sheryl’s performance, though brilliant, takes an attitudinal spin on the character that might have cost her the role. Randolph nails everything.

Later, Sheryl has her own catharsis, when during The Ring Cycle she realizes that she, amid all the Siegfrieds and Brünnhildes, deserves the ring herself, storms center stage to demand it, and exits. Funny, human, heartbreaking, impeccably performed—the character may not get the guy, but Randolph gets the gold.

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The Bad and the Better

Let’s get loud. The Amoralists, perhaps New York’s shoutiest theater company, reunites for a dark detective story about two troubled brothers. Director Daniel Aukin wrangles 28 actors in Derek Ahonen’s tale of “anarchists, law enforcement officials, and political power players.”

Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: June 14. Continues through July 21, 2012

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The Bad and the Better Will Likely Not Play Lincoln Center

Let it not be said that director Daniel Aukin lacks range. Fresh from remounting 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s intimate, graceful chamber piece, he teams with the Amoralists for The Bad and the Better, a rampageous neo-noir with a dirty mouth and an imposing body count—eight deaths onstage, perhaps a dozen or more off.

On a playfully cluttered set that serves as a cop bar, a bookstore, a police department, a penthouse, a shopping mall, a Long Island suburb, and more, the harum-scarum swirl of the script eventually settles on two estranged siblings: Chucky Lang (David Nash), an NYPD recruit working undercover in an activists’ cell, and his older brother Ricky (William Apps), a disgraced detective exiled to a suburban backwater. A sinister real-estate deal, a fixed gubernatorial election, a rash of murder suicides, a long-aborning revenge, and various amours round out the plot of this two-and-half-hour show.

Playwright and Amoralists co-founder Derek Ahonen takes his title comes from a spat among the activists collective, in which the group’s leader, Edmond, tells a homicidal compatriot, “You don’t know the difference between the bad and the better.” Actually, the same might be said of Ahonen and, to a lesser extent, of Aukin. Despite an air of self-congratulation and a sophomoric taste for shock, Ahonen has real strengths as a playwright—fast, roguish dialogue and a predilection for plots with more twists than a Chubby Checker convention. But someone ought to help him differentiate the good jokes from the cheap ones, the necessary conversations from the filler.

Aukin’s a pro, teaming with lighting designer Natalie Robin to distinguish the unceasing parade of scenes. And he coaxes the 26-member cast toward a coherent tone amid the turpitude, a kind of cartoonish hyperrealism. Despite these efforts, the acting is pointedly uneven. Both Amoralists veterans (Sarah Lemp, Nick Lawson) and newcomers (Cassandra Paras) excel, but many others seem in search of a style, underplaying or overdoing it.

Of course, variability plagues any play so large and so long. For better or for badder, maybe the Amoralists even prefer it that way. Their very name, as well as the thematic arcs of most of their shows, questions what constitutes good and evil—a somewhat adolescent pursuit, but they seem to like it. Happily for audiences, they make that moral gray area look awfully colorful.

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The Ugly One Looks Good

Alfredo Narciso, who plays Lette in The Ugly One, is a handsome man. Yet not according to the characters who share the Soho Rep stage with him in Marius von Mayenburg’s barbed satire. “We can’t stand the sight of you,” his boss (Andrew Garman) confesses. Even his loving wife (Lisa Joyce) tells him, “You’re a very beautiful human being—but I’m afraid your face is very, very ugly.”

Narciso doesn’t wear any ungainly prosthetics. Nor does he contort his dark good looks into some sort of sneer. But in director Daniel Aukin’s precise and fluid take, co-produced by the Play Company, Lette does come to seem ugly before our eyes. And then, owing to radical plastic surgery (that again leaves Narciso’s face unaltered), Lette becomes indescribably handsome. But with a changed face, Lette finds his sense of self unmoored.

Von Mayenburg, a German playwright and dramaturge at Berlin’s famed Schaubühne, writes dramas that often receive comparison to the elegant postmodernism of Caryl Churchill and the brutal poetry of Sarah Kane. The London critic Michael Billington has suggested that von Mayenburg’s scripts belong to the “Fire and Fury Brigade,” for their searing contempt for bourgeois values. But The Ugly One, translated by Maja Zade, is a cooler play and seems to owe more to the European absurdist tradition, Vaclav Havel and Eugéne Ionesco particularly.

The Ugly One proposes that if surface looks can succumb to the surgeon’s scalpel, what’s on the inside is equally unstable. Appearance determines personality, and once appearance changes, only base desires—for sex, for power—remain. All the actors (the delightful Steven Boyer rounds out the strong cast) except Narciso take on more than one character, without benefit of wig or costume change. The performers are skilled enough to make these roles nevertheless distinct, but the script suggests that there’s but a hair’s breadth—or a haircut—differentiating any of us.

Running just over an hour—Soho Rep has never shied away from the short play—The Ugly One stands as an amusing and troubling exploration of exteriors and identities. With the audience ranged on two sides of Eugene Lee’s unsightly set (linoleum, fluorescents, folding chairs), you’re forced to look into the faces of your fellow spectators. Across the stage, we observe each other, male and female, old and young, alert and yawning, attractive and unbeautiful, but all, in von Mayenburg’s view, quite alike.

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LICENSED TO ILL

In 1967, Surgeon General William Stewart announced, “It’s time to close the book on infectious disease.” That book still remains open, but in the futuristic world that closes Adam Rapp’s new play cycle, The Hallway Trilogy, sickness has indeed been exterminated, except in an East Side tenement museum in which cash-strapped volunteers are infected with antiquated illnesses to delight the public. Each of Rapp’s new plays take place in that same tenement. The first, set in 1953 concerns an actress; the second, situated in the present, follows a squabbling couple; and the third, which occurs 50 years hence, is the museum piece. Directors Rapp, Daniel Aukin, Trip Cullman, and a cast of downtown luminaries offer these infectious evenings.

Sundays, 1 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 4 & 8 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Starts: Feb. 6. Continues through March 27, 2011

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DRUGGED UP

In the midst of the recent hearings about steroid use in baseball, Jose Canseco said, “From what I’m hearing, I was the only individual in Major League Baseball to use steroids.” In his latest script, Back Back Back, Itamar Moses assumes the drugging was slightly more widespread. His play focuses on three teammates who may have dosed. In what will very likely not be construed an error, it also marks the return to the New York field of much-missed director Daniel Aukin.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 30. Continues through Jan. 4, 2008

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Englishwoman in New York

The tunnel starts at an undisclosed location in London. It bores westward under the ocean, jags a bit at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, rises through the denser rock of the continental shelf, and ends at New York City’s Soho Rep, where it deposits British artistic directors.

Or so it seems. When Sarah Benson takes over on October 14, she’ll be the third Brit in a row to run the highly regarded downtown theater. “It was bizarre when I was hired,” says outgoing artistic director Daniel Aukin, a London native, “and it’s bizarre this time.” Julian Webber, another Brit, ran the place for the eight years prior to Aukin. None of them knew each other before their stints at the theater, which was founded in 1975 by two plain-old Americans, Marlene Swartz and Jerry Engelbach.

Soho Rep had a particularly strong run under Aukin, solidifying its reputation for well-produced, idiosyncratic playwriting. During his tenure, the theater won an Obie Award for its 2003 revival of Maria Irene Fornes’s Molly’s Dream and multiple Obies for Melissa James Gibson’s 2001 [sic].

“What’s unique about Soho Rep,” says Benson, explaining the philosophy she’ll use to run the Walker Street theater, “is its position in the New York landscape. Although we’re nestled in the downtown community, we’re also making plays. We’re very downtown in one sense, but we’re also interested in good design and the things many small companies don’t have the resources for. It’s about work that’s specific to the theatrical idiom—not a TV show, not a film. And work that can only be made by a specific artist or group, whether Richard Maxwell, Melissa James Gibson, or Young Jean Lee. There’s nothing interchangeable about a Soho Rep production.”

Benson, 28, graduated from King’s College London and worked with the theater group Arion before a 2002 Fulbright brought her to Brooklyn College’s directing MFA program. Part of the award was a job at Soho Rep, who then hired her in 2004 as associate artistic director and co-chair of its Writer/Director Lab. For the past two years she has also co-curated the Prelude Festival at the CUNY Graduate Center, which is a kind of tasting menu of avant theatrical work scheduled for the upcoming New York season. This year’s ambitious four-day event concluded September 30 and featured performances by Collapsable Giraffe, Carl Hancock Rux, and Tent, among many others.

Benson is cautious about naming writers she’d like to produce at Soho Rep, but notes that “Prelude is a good example of my playwriting aesthetic.” With that hint and a gander at the Prelude schedule, one might expect to see the literate alterna-plays of people like Jason Grote, Will Eno, Thomas Bradshaw, Jenny Schwartz, Amber Reed, or Nick Flynn. Benson also wants to make Soho Rep’s script-development programs “more of a continuum” with its main stage, and hopefully increase the number of annual productions from the currently modest two. Their new season begins October 5 with Adam Bock’s The Thugs.

As for Aukin, he’ll be “seeing what it’s like not to run a theater for a while.” He has several directing projects in the pipeline, two of them film adaptations of plays he directed at Soho Rep: Quincy Long’s The Year of the Baby and Mark Schultz’s Everything Will Be Different. He also spent this past summer at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab working on Gibson’s new play, a modern-day version of The Odyssey, which he calls “the best thing she’s ever written.” As for his Soho Rep legacy, Aukin would like to be remembered for “identifying and supporting visionary plays with a real emphasis on integrated, rigorous design.” It’s a legacy the dynamic, well-connected Benson seems primed to both honor and expand.

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Film

Confined to her New York loft since losing her leg in an accident, depressed agoraphobe Anne (French art-house star Nathalie Richard) silently pines after her distant architect husband, Donnie (Daniel Aukin), an uptight nebbish with no discernible sex drive or personality. Anne’s half-sister, Iris (Sarah Adler), a wild thing who plays disco, throws food at the walls, and lapses often into discomfiting bursts of candor, shows up one day, and duly jolts the couple from their placid misery. David Barker’s Afraid of Everything is a stifling chamber piece laced with Repulsion-style foreboding and an undercurrent of kink. (A largely offscreen presence, Anne’s prosthetic leg poses the unavoidable question: What would Cronenberg do?) The rare Sundance indie that thrives on psychological ambiguity (perhaps as a result, it’s been languishing undistributed since 1999), the film effectively conjures an atmosphere of purposeful aridity (Deborah Lewis’s stringent black-and-white cinematography helps) even as it flirts with preciousness (the starched dialogue has an unflattering Off-Off-Broadway ring). And while her co-stars all too easily revert to arch mannerisms, the wonderful Richard, best known for her work with Jacques Rivette and Olivier Assayas, can animate even the most bloodless lines.

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The Lucky and the Yucky

Like her heroines, Melissa James Gibson is an intelligent woman who’s let graduate school take over her life. Jen and Sallie will never finish their dissertations. Jen, who rejects all words that allude to even transient relationships (she refuses to call her boyfriend her boyfriend), has been studying ways to construct strangers’ identities by searching through their garbage. ( “She believes that what we discard is of much greater interest than what we keep,” says her nonboyfriend, Karl.) Since she can’t do so without the strangers’ permission, an ethical necessity in academia, “her dissertation is now garbage.” Sallie is writing about alternatives to standard narrative structure, works that run end-middle-beginning or middle-middle-middle instead of beginning-middle-end. Interestingly, as her boyfriend, Lyle, remarks, “she has trouble finishing things.” Instead she fixates on the minutiae of her encounters with her adviser, whom she’s attracted to but doesn’t find attractive.

As this sampling suggests, Gibson has a quick wit and an acute ear, but is more than a little fixated on minutiae herself. Jen and Sallie, glued to their desks and obsessing in the academic present, make an unappealingly static center for even 90 minutes’ scrutiny of verbal detritus; Karl and Lyle, who at least get to move around, seem to have no life at all beyond obsessing over Jen and Sallie. The four performers in Daniel Aukin’s production are all appealing, especially Jeremy Shamos, but have virtually nothing to do. Despite Gibson’s bright bursts of vaudevillian humor, her Nicholson Baker-like navelistic contemplations quickly turn oppressive in a narrative so middle-middle-middle. Karl brings Jen suitcases full of garbage as love gifts; pity reviewers can’t be tempted that way.