Actors Repertory Theatre

at Victory Gardens Studio Theatre

It’s amazing how much mileage Sam Shepard gets out of his Greek tragedy meets Edward Albee meets the Eagles routine. In the 1983 Fool for Love, which this weekend wraps up a brief run at Victory Gardens Studio, Shepard trots out the old reliables–fated meetings, incest, sexual obsession, the search for the father–and sets them into an Albee-esque game-playing situation: couple with a dark secret entertains/torments unsuspecting intruder. Only instead of an east-coast college town, the setting is a run-down motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert, and the main male figure is guzzling booze from a bottle and practicing his lasso tosses instead of sipping martinis and making classical allusions.

That lasso tossing can be a bitch, though, especially in the intimate confines of Victory Gardens Studio. At the performance I caught last weekend, Andrei Hartt accidentally tossed his rope into the front row and nearly caught him a patron. With quiet aplomb he leaned into the audience, retrieved his rope’s end, and gave an apologetic but reserved “Pardon, ma’am” before returning to the action–which consisted of him terrorizing his lover by threatening to murder her new boyfriend.

The potentially awkward moment, far from detracting from the play, fit quite comfortably into it–partly because of the actor’s confidence, but mainly because Fool for Love never leaves the audience with the sense that they are watching anything other than playacting. Shepard’s manipulation of his thematic material is so blatant, his characters so transparent, and his debt to other writers so obvious that we simply can’t take the play seriously.

Hartt plays Eddie, a lonesome cowboy who’s returned from a long absence to reclaim May, his lover. She alternately clings to him and spurns him, pleads with and curses him, kisses him on the mouth and knees him in the groin; this intended portrayal of a desperate love-hate cycle comes off merely as dramatic affectation. Off to the side, stepping in and out of the characters’ imaginations and commenting on the action, is an old man–who, we are not surprised to learn about a third of the way through, is Eddie and May’s father. Born of different mothers, the two young ‘uns have been lovers since high school–their affair the result of the old man’s infidelity and irresponsibility as well as their own urges.

Rounding out the play’s quartet of characters is Martin, the nice young nerd who has come to court May and is understandably taken aback when he finds the coarse and strutting lout Eddie lolling about on May’s motel-room floor. Martin is really the key to the play, because once we have been officially informed of what we have already perceived (that Eddie and May are incestuous half siblings), there is nowhere for the play to go except in the direction of shocking the outsider. After all, what’s Hump the Hostess without Get the Guests?

There’s also a bit of business involving a mysterious countess who is chasing the fickle Eddie in her Mercedes. This death figure never actually appears, but her offstage arrival prompts the production’s best effect–the headlights of her car beaming through the window as she pulls inexorably into the parking lot.

Director Eric Nightengale’s lean, low-budget staging of the play for the Actors Repertory Theatre emphasizes the goofy comedy of Shepard’s dialogue, especially once Eddie has started messing with Martin’s mind. This sequence is aided by the ingratiating sweetness with which Paul Gilmartin plays Martin, who came to take his girl to the movies and ended up in the middle of a nightmare. Hartt and Lia Hortensen go in for a whole lot of yelling and door slamming as Eddie and May; like Gilmartin, they’re at their best when they’re at their funniest, but they don’t really pull off the dramatic revelations. The only real weak link is Ted Radakovic as the old man; he’s too flat-footed to be funny and totally lacks the haunted air of a character who is the source of all the play’s guilt and pain.

Perhaps actors of greater presence could evoke the mythic resonances Shepard is aiming for; but a clean, straightforward performance like this, which exposes the script’s essential shallowness, has its merits.