Theatre Review: ‘Fool For Love’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

The cast of “Fool For Love” at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

The American Repertory Theatre of Western New York (ART of WNY), one of the region’s many small non-profit theatre companies, is embarking on a new frontier after recently signing a 10 year lease at the 545 Elmwood Avenue Theatreloft. After eight nomadic seasons of roaming from theatre space to theatre space, ART is finally settling down, and to kick off this new era they’ve selected “Fool for Love,” one of celebrated playwright Sam Shepard’s most deeply intimate plays. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience on opening night in the new space, and while we were few in number (not uncommon for a weeknight opener), we were rapturously attuned to the drama unfolding on stage.

ART of WNY’s production of “Fool for Love” is a real powerhouse, and definitely some of their best work to date.

“Fool for Love” is a high-intensity love story of an on-again off-again co-dependent couple, Eddie (Eric Michael Rawski) and May (Candice Kogut, who also serves as ART’s Artistic Director). After being gone for an undisclosed amount of time, Eddie returns to May’s hotel room in the Mojave Desert and begs her to take him back. Guarded from more than a decade of disappointment, May painfully tells him to leave. A battle of wills ensues as the two fight against their desire for each other. Drinks are poured, doors are slammed, and innocent outsiders are dragged into the scuffle. Weaved into the story is Eddie and May’s father (Old Man”, played by Steve Jakiel), who perches above the stage for much of the play, acting more as a memory and interjecting throughout the story to add context to Eddie’s childhood recollections. When May’s friend/date/gentleman caller Martin (Nick Lama) shows up to pick May up for their date, Eddie and May begin delving into their past, their families (it’s revealed about halfway through the play that they’re half-siblings), and the dark origin story of why they’re inextricably linked.

“Fool for Love” is a deeply intimate play in every sense of the word. Eddie and May are the textbook definition of a toxic relationship, exhibiting a breathtaking level of co-dependency fueled by alcohol, sexual tension, childhood trauma, and back-and-forth emotional manipulation. In the hands of sub-par actors, this play simply doesn’t work, which is probably why you don’t see it produced often. Anyone familiar with Sam Shepard knows that his iconic plays all traffic in themes of family dysfunction, broken relationships, and quasi (sometimes literal) incest. “Fool for Love” is no exception, making Eddie and May’s chemistry the linchpin in whether or not this play works. Thankfully, Rawski and Kogut have developed a beautiful chemistry on stage, explosive and combative one moment and tearfully distant the next. They’re really quite excellent, and this show simply wouldn’t land with audiences otherwise. Fun sidenote: Rawski—in my opinion—bears a striking resemblance to Sam Rockwell, who played Eddie in the most recent Broadway production of “Fool for Love” in 2015. Seriously, if he lost the moustache they’d be indistinguishable.  

Equally good is Steve Jakiel’s “Old Man.” This is a tricky character to master, because he spends large swaths of the show sitting silently and sipping his drink, unseen and unheard by Eddie and May. When he first speaks it’s with long, rambling, sometimes incoherent monologues. When he enters the fray of the hotel room about halfway through the show he’s unseen by Martin and largely unacknowledged by May. And during the last third of the show, when the awful sins of his past are unearthed by May and Eddie, he’s largely unaffected and indifferent at first, quickly transitioning to vehement denial. It’s an incredibly tricky needle to thread, and Jakiel does it exceptionally well.

“Fool for Love” is an actor’s play, full stop. While Matt LaChiusa’s sets look nice, this play can ultimately be done in a naked blackbox theatre if it’s well cast. That’s not meant as a slight to LaChiusa (seriously, the sets are good), it’s a testament to how important the play’s dynamics, delivery, and emotional peaks-and-valleys are.  And even more importantly, the story must be effectively delivered because it’s chalked full of nuance and subtext. The mirroring of Eddie and his father’s life trajectories; the intersection of romance, sex, and sibling love; power struggle, masculinity, and everything else you can imagine. You need thoughtful, disciplined, and intentional actors to bring these themes to the surface. Short of a couple sequences that could have used a little more room to breathe, the cast batted a thousand on the night I was in attendance. This production is brilliantly cast and beautifully acted.

ART of WNY’s production of “Fool for Love” is a real powerhouse, and definitely some of their best work to date.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

“Fool for Love” is playing at the Elmwood Avenue TheatreLoft until November 17th. For tickets and more information, click here.