The drug-addict mother, the fictional son, the defective airplane parts: Secrets are at the core of many great American plays. Sometimes they are secrets kept by one character from the others, or from the outer world; the drama is in the revelation of what the audience already knows. Other times, though, the audience is the dupe, the playwright springing his secret like a sex toy to juice up the proceedings. (I’m looking at you, Neil LaBute.) One of the mysterious achievements of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love, only now having its Broadway debut, is the way it combines these two seemingly incompatible modes of withholding in a story whose point is the huge damage caused by a lack of information. When the withholding and revelation are handled as adroitly as they are in Daniel Aukin’s terrific staging for the Manhattan Theatre Club, Fool for Love acquires the force of Greek tragedy — one Greek tragedy in particular.
I’m not trying to be coy, but it’s difficult to write about this kind of play without giving away its legitimate surprises. In Fool for Love, it takes about half of the 70-minute running time for the real situation to sink in, and it is so subtly prepared for that you almost don’t recognize the moment of recognition. At first you think you are getting a typical story of can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-without-you love, straight from a country-Western song. May (Nina Arianda) and Eddie (Sam Rockwell) are longtime lovers whose shtick involves violent need and frequent attempts to pull away from each other’s gravity, to no avail. The rise of the dirty-looking curtain finds the pair in the midst of one of their frequent explosive recoils, Eddie having returned after a months-long disappearance (he’s a stuntman) during which May tried yet again to reestablish herself without him. In a town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in the bleakest motel room ever, they drink, fight, and make out; at one point Eddie even ropes May like a heifer. This has been going on for 15 years, since they met in high school, with cataclysmic results.
Two other characters gradually force the story, and the play, into wider orbit. The one known as the Old Man has, at first, an uncertain role in the proceedings; he sits in a wooden chair to the side of the action, both in the room and outside it, both in and out of the story. The other is Martin, a local maintenance worker who evidently has a date to take May to the movies. The arrival of Nice Normal Guy allows for some comic relief — Martin is no match for these two vicious cats — and also the explicit reveal. Beyond that, he is a model of a different kind of life, a life in which uncomplicated gentleness is possible because one’s past is not a prison.
Eddie: What kinda people do you hail from anyway, Martin?
Martin: Me? Uh — I don’t know. I was adopted.
Eddie: Oh. You must have a lotta problems then, huh?
Martin: Well — not really, no.
Eddie: No? You orphans are supposed to steal a lot, aren’t ya? Shoplifting and stuff. You’re also supposed to be the main group responsible for bumping off our presidents.
Martin: Really? I never heard that.
Eddie: Well, you oughta read the papers, Martin.
Eddie isn’t toying with Martin just because his dreadful need for May has turned him into a sadist; he also cannot fathom, and even finds abnormal, an idea of family that is not mired in agony. We identify with Martin because Shepard is doing the same thing to us: We are the Nice Normal Guy foils to his story about a condition that, however outré it may at first seem, is, for him, a foundational American, and beyond that human, problem. Look hard enough, and we are all trapped in the web of what we don’t know, or didn’t know until too late.
This is a complicated stance for a play to take and maintain, requiring the kind of delicacy in performance and staging that Shepard’s work, with its violence and quasi-mysticism, does not often get. Here it does. The production, already excellent when presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2014, has only improved. Physically, it is just about perfect, especially the lighting design by Justin Townsend, which creates its poetic effects (as the play does) from the most concrete situations. Arianda’s alternately spitfire and limpetlike fierceness has rarely been channeled as effectively, and Rockwell, a string bean in a cowboy hat, with a mean lasso and a mortifying chicken dance, brings tremendous vulnerability to a role often played as a brick. As the Old Man, Gordon Joseph Weiss makes what is literally a peripheral part feel central (he’s got an amazing voice), and Tom Pelphrey, the only newcomer to the cast, manages the trick — both an acting trick and a life trick — of being stalwart and unassuming at the same time. You feel almost sick for him, drawn into this snake pit of impossible love, and then, for the same reason, you feel almost sick for yourself.
* * *
Robert O’Hara’s hysterical new play Barbecue, at the Public, also features the two kinds of dramatic secret. I can tell you about one. Four of the surviving middle-age O’Mallery siblings gather by the picnic tables at a city park for a party that is actually a decoy to lure the fifth, known as Zippity Boom, to an intervention. She is not the only one who might profit from a surprise trip to rehab:
Lillie Anne: You and me both know you ain’t gat nuthin' else to do this morning, and therefore the least you can achieve in your trailer-park-living-asshole of a life is to help your sister in her time of need.
James T: I gat four sisters in a time of need, one of which is you.
Lillie Anne: I’m talking about the sister with the crack habit.
James T: I gat two of those.
Lillie Anne: I’m talking 'bout the one with the crack habit and the alcohol problem.
James T: And two of those.
Lillie Anne: The one with the crack habit, alcohol problem, and the mental illness.
James T: Fuck her.
Lillie Anne: Too late. Life done already done that.
As the family members confront Zippity Boom and then each other with their trashy doings, Act One zooms along at a high level of verbal ebullience; I’ve not laughed as hard in the theater, or felt as uncomfortable about it, since O’Hara’s Bootycandy, at Playwrights Horizons last year. He’s a genius at scene-building, that deceptively difficult art of dancing backward and forward at once, and is also inerrant at locating the social experience of his plays at the intersection of voyeurism and minstrelsy. That should be enough, but when I say that Barbecue is hysterical, I mean it in both senses of the word: It’s extremely funny and, in its scattershot ambition, increasingly desperate. Unlike Bootycandy, which gradually revealed a nifty formal trick, Barbecue has two, neither of which I can really discuss except to say that one works brilliantly and the other not at all. By “works,” I mean, “adds to the value.” The first surprise, which takes place after the first scene, makes you rethink everything you’ve just experienced, and in doing so expands its meaning; the second, which takes place just before the intermission, does the opposite. It contracts the scope of the rest of the play, invoking tired Hollywood satire and, incidentally, not making very much sense.
I’m not categorically opposed to plays whose logic doesn’t track, or those that move from yuks to yikes; but this one, as it tries in the second act to address gassy subjects like self-invention and appropriation, loses its sprightliness and sense of direction. (The direction, which fails to counter this, is by Kent Gash.) It is not without its moments of levity, its piercingly apt observations of certain kinds of people. But after such a furious boil of comedy in Act One, the attempted drama of Act Two can only feel like a comedown. Is there an intervention for that? Humor — and surprises — are addictive, to audiences and playwrights alike; it’s very hard to sustain the pleasure they provide, or to put them aside once they’ve taken control.