Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Stanford Friedman

Do not be misled by the title of this Sam Shepard classic from 1983. Fool for Love is not the kind of play that has you walking out of the theater with your heartstrings tugged, your head in a giddy cloud of romance. Instead, this postmodern absurdist period piece, impeccably staged by director Daniel Aukin, and imported from Williamstown by the Manhattan Theatre Club, provides the kind of thrill you get from watching a well-executed building demolition. We see each explosive put into place, each timer set, so that when the inevitable implosion finally occurs, you marvel at the controlled devastation.

The evening begins with noisy darkness followed by silent light. A menacing hum fills the theater and grows to a loud mechanical growl as if this bomb is already about to go off, but then it suddenly dies and we discover on stage a tableau, what looks like a painting from a Wild West museum. A man and a woman, their faces hidden, sit inside a rundown motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert, a place that is neither permanent nor a home, in a landscape that has seen its share of explosions. Eddie (Sam Rockwell) sits in a chair, his pulled-down cowboy hat hiding whether he’s asleep or on edge. May (Nina Arianda) is on the bed, all elbows and shoulders, her blonde locks masking whatever is in her eyes. And over in the corner, neither in the room nor out of it, The Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) mysteriously stares out into space. A very long moment goes by, giving us time to appreciate Dane Laffrey’s appropriately dingy set and Justin Townsend’s moody lighting. Then the piece stirs to life.

What transpires over the next 75 minutes is a study of fatal attractions, the meaning of being a man, and the fine line between a lie and a secret truth. May and Eddie are ex-lovers, as desperate to be together as they are yearning to be apart. “You’re like a disease to me,” May tells him. They cling to each other, shove each other away, and when Eddie breaks out a lasso, we know it’s not just the furniture he will soon enough rope. The couple are holding on to some dark secrets, and The Old Man, who turns out to be a ghost from their past, brings them into focus for us with a few impassioned monologues. He also carries woes of his own. When accused of loving two different women, he explains in perfect Shepard logic, “It was the same love, split in two.”

The cast is all-powerful. Rockwell is tasked with being an archetypal Marlboro Man who harbors a panicked inner child. In his non-stop comings and goings from the motel room, he delivers a skilled physical performance while offering nicely timed bits of comic business. Something about how he enters carrying a large rifle draws a laugh, though we know we shouldn’t be chuckling. And when he stares at May like a cowboy inspecting his horse, we nearly expect him to pull her mouth open to check her teeth. The sexual vibe that Arianda perfected in Venus in Fur, four years ago in this same space, serves her again here in a role that is less complex but nonetheless challenging in terms of turning on and off a gusher of emotion while bouncing off walls and straddling her co-star. The Old Man is the play’s most sympathetic character and Weiss’ performance is a master class in pathos. Rounding out the company is Tom Pelphrey as Martin, the poor, confused stiff who gets caught in the middle of May and Eddie’s volatile courtship. It’s a character that exists primarily to help flesh out the backstory of the others, but Pelphrey’s soft touch provides a welcome counterpoint to the many sharp jabs that surround him.

Fool for Love – By Sam Shepard; Directed by Daniel Aukin.

WITH: Nina Arianda (May), Sam Rockwell (Eddie), Tom Pelphrey (Martin) and Gordon Joseph Weiss (The Old Man).

Scenic design by Dane Laffrey; costume design by Anita Yavich; lighting design by Justin Townsend; sound design by Ryan Rumery; David S. Leong, movement and fights; Kyle Gates, production stage manager; Colleen M. Sherry, stage manager. Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club in association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., (212) 239-6200, Running time: 75 minutes.