We've all lived in them a night or two (I once did so for three weeks outside godforsaken Flagstaff, Ariz.), or at least we've been around enough of 'em to catch their drift—those broken-down, grime-ass motels in the middle of nowhere, whose desk clerks and clientele are as sketchy as the urine stains on the mattresses or the roaches that line the baseboards. They're the kinds of places that make May, the central figure in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, the hero of the story as well. She's living in just such an outpost near the Mojave Desert, struggling to rise above her situation and 15 years of Eddie, the man who's pretty much consigned her there.
This current NVA production has good ideas behind it, not the least of which is the role of the ghostly Old Man, played to perfection by Jack Missett. And while I balked at first at the revelation that May and Eddie might be half-siblings, the reach works for the venturesome Shepard. But for all the volatility Shepard imbues into May and Eddie's relationship—for all the miles Eddie's covered to find May and bring her to her senses—many of those ideas never take root. Director Dana Case needs to flood critical passages with big-time bits of business to bring the characters to life, lest their words ring hollow for the rest of the run.
Those who saw NVA's very good True West know Shepard's explosive side, one that often turns supposed allies against one another in their voyages of self-discovery. With Fool for Love, he has such an anecdote in May (Kristianne Kurner), who's just found a job, a new man and maybe some clues to a nicer life. The problem is, she frickin' cannot let go of Eddie (Joshua Everett Johnson), a rodeo rider who's traveled nearly 3,000 miles to reunite with her. In one second, she'll demand he leave; in the next, she recants and begs him to stay. We're all fools for love, Shepard seems to say, even when the prospects for a better existence stare us in the butt.
But even with the tight and forceful script, this show is in serious need of rougher edges in the performance department. At one point, for example, Eddie brings a rifle into the hotel and dutifully cleans it; at another, he fashions lariats out of some grimy, well-worn rope. What wonderful scenelets those interludes could make, with Eddie longingly pointing the rifle at May or pretending to hog-tie her; yet those colorations never unfold, and we're left to speculate on the depth of Eddie's meanness. Eddie's boozing; May's questionable mental state; neighbor Martin's (Greg Wittman) almost charming naïveté: The script screams with chances for embellishment, but Case rarely takes charge of them. A motel-size drinking glass, after all, doesn't begin to reflect Eddie's disdain for May.
This Fool has the horses, with some pretty good scene and tech design to boot; and at one point, it made me super-glad I'm single. But I also have an extremely high threshold for pain when it comes to matters of the heart—and this show didn't tap it. In many of the areas that count, those horses never assume much more than a trot.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Oct. 11. Fool for Love runs through Oct. 26 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State St., Carlsbad. $22-$30. (760) 433-3245 or www.newvillagearts.org.