By Joe McGovern
Updated October 08, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT

Genre: Play, Drama; Starring: Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda; Writer: Sam Shepard; Director: Daniel Aukin; Opening Date: Oct. 8, 2015

Anyone who’s ever slammed a door in anger will immediately recognize the hollow, stage-echo falseness of the two doors on the Fool for Love set—two doors that get slammed about once for each of the 75 minutes in Sam Shepard’s 1983 play (playing now through Dec. 6 at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre). The slamming, which produces a stereo boom you can feel in your organs, eventually becomes rote and numbing. As does much else in this staunch, uninvolving production, which features tempestuous performers in Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell, but offers them not much more than glum platitudes on bad romance.

As the play opens, May (Arianda) and Eddie (Rockwell) are slumped and unspeaking in a dingy motel room in the Mojave Desert. Director Daniel Aukin lets the scene breathe for a full minute before the two lovers—or ex-lovers—begin arguing. It seems that Eddie has returned to May’s world with promises of a happier-ever-after life together. But his desperation doesn’t fit with the laconic Marlboro Man he’s pretending to be. “How many times have you done this to me?” she pleads. “Suckered me into some dumb little fantasy and then dropped me like a hot rock.” And yet she can’t resist him, forcing him away and then begging for him back with such obsessive compulsion that her fifth or sixth “No…wait” eventually receives a plentiful laugh from the audience.

There’s also an old man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) sitting in a chair to the right of the stage, unattached to the hotel room, who holds the key to May and Eddie’s tortured amorous history. Their love, it turns out, is taboo, which probably felt more dangerous on stage three decades ago than it does today. And Shepard, who wrote play as he was breaking up with his wife of 15 years, uses the relationship in Fool for Love to comment on the basic insanity of all love, whether we’re falling into or out of it. Venus in Fur Tony winner Arianda and offbeat indie movie veteran Rockwell, however, each exude a level of sophistication and intelligence that doesn’t mesh with the strenuous and noisome characters they are playing. Couples arguing is a fixture of the American stage, but these two are just human bumper cars. The fight lacks verve.

Shepard’s instructions in the play’s original text call for it to be “performed relentlessly, without a break,” though the play doesn’t achieve a note of grace until its final stretch, when a merciful quiet grows over the scene and both May and Eddie deliver backstory-explaining monologues. It earns the elegiac finish, but as with last season’s minimalist two-hander Constellations, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson and was performed in the same theater as Fool for Love, the feeling nags that this was a production simply too small for Broadway. Sam Shepard, whose rough, real-man poetry is nothing if not an acquired taste, hopefully scratches his great chiseled, grizzled jaw when he hears that tickets to this tough, tiny drama are going for $150 a pop.