One of the things that I look forward to every summer is the Williamstown Theater Festival. Though it is a relatively small festival, they do always have some very interesting productions and draw some big name talent to the Berkshires every year. Many of the shows that debut at WTF often make their way to Broadway; two years ago Bradley Cooper starred in The Elephant Man, a show that is set to debut in New York City sometime in the near future. I’d love to tell you that my primary reason for making the hour drive to Williamstown is my deep and abiding love for the theater, but while I do really enjoy the productions I would be lying if I said that getting to see movie stars up close isn’t a very large factor in deciding what productions I go check out. Generally, I scan the selections to see what shows have famous people in them and those are typically the ones that I choose. It’s shallow, but at least it is culturally shallow. This is occasionally overridden by an honest interest in a production; one year I opted to go see The Last Goodbye, a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that used only the music of Jeff Buckley that touted no famous names. But that is the exception rather than the rule.
However, I was still licking my wounds from being shut-out from seeing Cooper – those tickets went fast! – so this year as soon as I heard that Chris Pine (Captain Kirk, Star Trek (2009)) and Lauren Ambrose (Claire, Six Feet Under) were going to star in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love I snatched up tickets without even knowing much of anything about the play. I was actually way more excited to see Lauren Ambrose, who I have always really liked, than Pine, though he was definitely an added bonus. His presence was what was going to move tickets, so I was delighted when not only was I able to get a ticket but that I was able to get one in the very front row. Success!
So needless to say when it was announced about a month before opening curtain that both Pine and Ambrose had dropped out of the show, I was super annoyed. The very generic excuse of “scheduling conflicts” were cited and while that might possibly be the reason, I’m guessing that there was something else behind this somewhat last minute decision for both stars to bail on the play. Maybe it was artistic differences, maybe they hated each other – who knows. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed that I was going to miss out the actors that I had been excited to see. I know these things happen, but it didn’t lessen my feelings of being let down when I first heard the news. My spirits lifted a bit when I hear that Pine was being replaced with Sam Rockwell, who frankly seemed like an upgrade. Pine is a fine actor, but I think that Rockwell has more depth; his attachment surely meant that the play would at least be interesting. Ambrose was replaced by Nina Arianda, whose work I wasn’t familiar with but who was a Tony winner for her role in Venus in Fur. So even though I wasn’t seeing who I had hoped to see, at least the play would still involve some very talented people. That’s a win in my book. After numerous co-workers asked me about the play that I was going to see, I was surprised how many people have no idea who Sam Rockwell. To be fair, they didn’t really know who Lauren Ambrose was either and only knew who Chris Pine was after I listed off several of his films. Sometimes it is very apparent that I don’t have much in common with the people I work with.
I set off for Williamstown without much additional information about the play other than the fact that it had a 75 minute runtime and that there would be no intermission. I was AOK with this information; a shorter performance meant that I would get home at a reasonable time which was a welcome development. I’ve been running around so much this summer that I relish an evening that doesn’t necessitate an 11pm arrival at my domicile. I’m old, y’all. I actually hate the drive to Williamstown – while the distance isn’t that problematic, there are a lot of windy back roads that freak me out. The speed limit is 55, but I have no godly idea how anyone takes those turns at that speed. I’m not really a nervous driver, but I am definitely anxious on those roads – especially at night. But sacrifices must be made for culture. I arrived at the theater without incident and had enough time for a quick beer before the show.
Fool for Love is the story of two lovers, Eddie and May. When the show begins, Eddie has tracked down May in a hotel after a period of some separation. He is trying to convince her to leave with him, but May is skeptical of his long term commitment to her. The two have an extremely combustible relationship – they can’t seem to live with or without each other and May fears that if they reunite the same combustible cycle will resume. To paraphrase Katy Perry “they fight, they breakup, they kiss, they make-up” ad nausea, with plenty of screaming and door slamming. May is trying to start a new life and has started dating a new man, whose arrival further complicates an already tense situation. Over the course of the play, a secret about Eddie and May is revealed that makes their relationship even more complicated.
Rockwell and Arianda were absolutely spectacular and while I can’t say that I necessarily liked the play, it was not any fault of theirs. They were both mesmerizing and brought the two characters to life. They create an intimacy between these two characters that is palpable; you get the feeling that you are a voyeur spying on the private moments of this couple. It makes you slightly uncomfortable to be a witness to these desperate people who are clearly toxic to one another but cannot imagine a life without the other. The fact that they were able to cultivate this type of stage presence in just a month speaks volumes about Rockwell and Arianda’s skill as performers. If you didn’t know better, you would think that they had carefully honed their performances over months, or even years, of working together. It’s incredibly impressive that they are so comfortable with each other and in the skin of their fictional characters.
Though both performances require the actors to run the gamut of emotions, Rockwell and Arianda have full control over their characters. Through all the histrionics and physical confrontation, there is a subtle restraint to what both actors are doing. It would easy to go too over the top with either of these characters; turn a performance up a notch or two and it becomes parody and loses all credibility. There is a real skill to knowing when to pull back – how to go big without going too big – and Rockwell and Arianda make this calculation look truly effortless.
Having been dazzled by the star power of the leads of the play, I hadn’t given much attention to the actors playing the other two minor roles in the play. Since I arrived at the theater with some time to kill, I was flipping through the program when I noticed that the name of the actor playing Martin, May’s new boyfriend, was Christopher Abbott. I knew that I knew that name and it took me a minute to place from where (without looking at his head shot or reading his bio, obviously). And then it hit me – that’s they guy who played Charlie on Girls until his sudden departure from the HBO show. I’m always intrigued when people jump ship from popular or critically acclaimed shows; it seems like a risky move and most do not immediately go on to success elsewhere. Since I had only seen him on Girls, I was curious how he would be in a different role. He was perfectly serviceable as Charlie, but it was a supporting role and there wasn’t a whole lot to it. I had no read on whether he was a good actor or not and while this performance wouldn’t offer definitive proof, it would serve as some sort of point of comparison. The role of Martin was also a supporting role, but required a very different skill set than Abbott used on Girls and I have to say that he did an excellent job. Martin is a simple man who seems completely confused and ill-prepared to process all the drama and passion that is swirling around him. Abbott plays May’s shell-shocked suitor just right.
Despite the stellar performances, I can’t say that I necessarily enjoyed the play in and of itself. The secret between Eddie and May was probably much more shocking at the time it was originally written and while it has completely lost its impact it has probably been diluted by what is considered normal in today’s pop culture. I found the final act of the play unsatisfactory; I didn’t necessarily need resolution but I needed something more. The actors left everything out on the stage, but the story – or lack thereof – just wasn’t for me. Perhaps I’m just not used to plays that are more about the moment in time than they normal narrative arc. I was invested in the story up until the very end, which I found too abrupt and rushed. Still an enjoyable night at the theater, but it was missing something for me. Perhaps my modern sensibility just couldn’t connect to it.
Fool for Love’s run has ended – the last performance was August 2 – and I have no idea if there are any future plans for this particular iteration on or off Broadway. This may have a limited run for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Regardless of what happens next, I’m glad that I got the chance to experience it. The narrative may have ultimately failed to totally resonate with me, but there is no denying that the cast, Rockwell and Arianda in particular, gave us powerhouse performances. I’ll definitely seek out Arianda in the future – I’m glad that I was exposed to her talent – and this experience served to solidify my admiration of Rockwell. Loved the actors, lukewarm on the story, but worth the trip across the state border.