One of the principal elements in Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" has always been its high anxiety.
This factor, heavily underscored in the play's original staging by the playwright, constituted a major part of its wonder: the sight of two people, so in love and so doggone angry with each other, battling it out, hammer and tongue and lasso, down there on that stage. "Fool for Love" was--is--nothing if not sublime in its relentless, foolish, firebrand physicality.
Inexplicably, the sleepy version of this theatrical hurricane that found its way onto the Second Stage at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory manages to overlook this fact. It gives us a pale imitation of the "Fool," so tame it wouldn't galvanize a desert termite.
Gone is the coiled tension of this motel encounter on the edges of the isolating Mojave; gone the pugilistic paroxysms of the slugging siblings/lovers. What we get is a carefully rehearsed set of studied motions trying to work up a sweat.
What this provokes is an inability to suspend disbelief despite Michael Devine's impeccable replica of a dreary motel room and Paulie Jenkins' dim lights and swooping headlights. We're stuck in the consciousness that we are watching an imitation of life. It never ignites.
More than any other American playwright, Shepard has captured the mythology of the West in all of its real-life grandeur, dreariness, beauty and poetry. (There are no contradictions in this; the poetry of the desert is its sense of wasteland and of its cowboys as uncomprehending travelers over its vast, inarticulate spaces.) The very thing lacking at South Coast is this signal sense of authenticity.
Bill Geisslinger's Eddie, the lost fool of a cowboy who goes more than 2,000 miles out of his way to find his girl, May (Elizabeth Ruscio), and take her home, rarely gives us the feeling that he's ever seen the inside of a half-ton truck, let alone lived on the range. This hothead's frustrations seem uncharacteristically reasoned and mild. When the wrangler in him tries to get some of the anger out by roping the bedposts (a scene normally fraught with unspoken fury), Geisslinger does not so much throw his rope as place it. It's a cheat that fools no one.
Ruscio as May is more persuasive but she, too, never convinces us of May's rough-hewn, unkempt intelligence and impulsive responses. Her education persists in bleeding through. So do a care and clarity and logic that have nothing to do with May's words and don't really belong in this play. As with Geisslinger, one is aware of a city kid grappling unsuccessfully with an alien and uncharted Western soul.
For all of those reasons, it is Hal Landon Jr. as Martin, May's slightly dense and lumbering date for the evening, who comes through with one of the production's two more satisfying performances. The other belongs to Hal Bokar as The Old Man--the patriarchal figure on the sidelines, both in the play and not, silently overseeing this battle of nitwits.
Good as Bokar and Landon are, however, they cannot be the center of attention. The fact that we notice them as much as we do is a telling sign we are being diverted from the main event: the heat between leading contestants. In this case, the absence of heat.
That Martin Benson directed this production is a bit puzzling. Benson has proved himself a consummate director many times over. In this instance, however, he's picked the wrong thoroughbreds for the race. It's not that Geisslinger and Ruscio are not capable actors. They're merely the wrong ones for the play.
'FOOL FOR LOVE'
The Sam Shepard play presented on its Second Stage by South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Director Martin Benson. Setting Michael Devine. Costumes Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Production manager Ted Carlsson. Wrangling consultant Bob Chapman. Stage manager Andy Tighe. Assistant stage manager Paul Lockwood. Cast Bill Geisslinger, Elizabeth Ruscio, Hal Bokar, Hal Landon Jr. Performances run Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m., until Feb. 22; (714) 957-4033.