It’s easy to see why actors would enjoy performing Sam Shepard’s 1983 hit. Rodeo stuntman Eddie (here, the well-cast Sam Rockwell, rough and ready) gets to swagger about as his on-again-off-again girlfriend May (Nina Arianda) throws fits of thwarted love, and “The Old Man” (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a ghostly presence off to the side, merely sits and observes, occasionally interjecting his own version of the backstory that the three of them are thrashing out. Interloper Martin (Tom Pelphrey) has perhaps the cushiest job of all: Turning up to take May on a movie date, he’s the innocent bystander par excellence, rendered all but mute by this outlandish display of familial dysfunction.
It wouldn’t do to reveal the precipitant plot twist, even if the news has been out for several decades now. Let’s just say that Shepard – then 40 and an established if laid-back, no longer “fringe” playwright – lifted a page from Ibsen’s Ghosts. So yes, Fool offers a juicy exercise for the actors involved. The mystery is why a contemporary audience should flock to see this dated psychodrama.
Star power doesn’t hurt. The often-underrated Rockwell proves a terrific choice as a shopworn cowboy – even if he could use more practice lassoing (that stiff heeling rope is a bit of a cheat; it’s like tossing a hula hoop). Arianda’s cadences unfortunately skew urban in this role. She was better suited to the Mittel-European milieu of Venus in Fur (as her Tony Award acknowledged). Weiss comes across as actory. But Pelphrey’s reactions are just perfect. You’ll feel for the poor guy, who has unwittingly stumbled into this overheated family drama. In fact, you may well relate.