Monday, October 12, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—‘Fool for Love’ on Broadway; ‘The Christians’ off-Broadway

Fool for Love
Written by Sam Shepard; directed by Daniel Aukin
Performances through December 6, 2015
Friedman Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

The Christians
Written by Lucas Hnath; directed by Les Waters
Performances through October 25, 2015
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda in Fool for Love (photo: Joan Marcus)

Among Sam Shepard's most concentrated plays, Fool for Love keeps erupting into violence: mainly the verbal kind between its antagonists/lovers/possible half-siblings Eddie and May, but also the physical confrontations as they argue and make up (rinse-repeat) in an endless—and endlessly vicious—cycle.

It all plays out in the confines of a slum of a motel room in the Mojave Desert, which is where May is staying after finally leaving Eddie for the (supposed) last time; he's tracked her down, driving some 2480 miles, he says, to drag her back with him. As they go at it again and again, an old man sits off to the side, occasionally interrupting with his own commentary: he may (or may not) be their father, depending on his (or their) version of the couple's long and tortured tale. Also on hand is an innocent party, Martin, at the motel to take May on a date: he gets caught in their fracas against his will.

For 75 tightly-wound minutes in Daniel Aukin's taut staging, Shepard's characters do a dance—not of death, exactly, but of the complicated emotions his title suggests. And although May and Eddie aren't really fools, their ongoing battles have formed permanent scars on their hearts which they carry around proudly, exhausted but unbowed.

Nina Arianda's trenchant May is primarily an expressively physical performance, her subtle body language speaking volumes about the unbearable tension built up over this long-gestating relationship. Even better is Sam Rockwell's would-be cowboy Eddie: he looks and plays the part—ten-gallon hat, spurs, gun-cleaning, fancy lassoing—and displays the crushing loneliness populating his soul with or without May. Rockwell's physical comedy, whether a split after he downs a drink or his playful lying on the floor near May's bed when Martin arrives, is impressive and funny, but sharpest are his recitations of Shepard's exquisitely jagged, poetic language, particularly Eddie's monologue of remembering when he met his father's other family, including a lovely teenage girl whom he would fall in love with. 

Shepard, whose more recent plays have become more irritatingly irrational in their broken-down narratives and characters, was at his artistic peak when he wrote Fool for Love, which was surrounded by the equally hard-hitting True West, Buried Child and A Lie of the Mind: his fractured style perfectly embodies these fractured people, if only for a few bruising, but beautifully rendered, moments.

The cast of The Christians (photo: Joan Marcus)

In The Christians, Lucas Hnath tackles the issue of faith: specifically how a shift in one congregation's tenet leads to an unbridgeable rift and near-collapse of the church itself, which grew steadily from a small storefront to the large, imposing building the people now worship in. The play dramatizes the fallout after pastor Paul preaches that God told him there is no hell, which causes hell to pay among his parishioners, including his associate pastor, dynamic young Joshua, who leaves to start his own successful church. 

Paul must deal with his choice's ethics: is it just a coincidence he brought up this "new" tenet after his church's debt was paid off, since he knew it would be a deal-breaker for some, as bemused parishioner Jenny says? He also must deal with wife Elizabeth's decision not to follow him, and with church elder Jay bemoaning the practical (i.e., business) fallout of such a momentous moral decision.

Hnath has written a serious play about a serious subject—and Les Waters directs snappily on Dane Waffrey's sparkling church interior set—but unfortunately Hnath's ideas and plotting are too pat, his arguments neither forceful nor penetrating enough. Still, there is his intelligent dialogue, which partially makes up for such gimmickry as the pastor haphazardly introducing other characters' dialogue and the truly annoying use of microphone cords, which makes the actors—mostly the excellent Andrew Garman as Paul—keep trying to avoid tripping. Wouldn't such a wealthy church use wireless mikes instead? 

And the 90-minute play is also padded by hymns sung by a first-rate choir, which is another gimmick recently deployed by A.R. Gurney when Cole Porter tunes dominated his slight, and short, comedy Love and Money. Even though less illuminating than it purports to be, The Christians remains an interesting sermon.

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