Ages of the Moon
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
January 30, 2010
Byron and Ames are two lovable old rascals who love women, love their wives, love bourbon, and love each other. These two coots can sit on the porch, drink, fuss with the ceiling fan, discuss their friendship, bicker bitterly in the way they have for the past 50 years, and yet ultimately concede that, despite rifts large and small, they just can't live without one another. There should be a spoiler alert in there somewhere, because I have just given away almost everything that happens in Ages of the Moon, Sam Shepard's new play, having its American premiere at the Atlantic.
I hate to say that, because Sam Shepard has certainly been a playwright I've admired and enjoyed—or at least, his plays from the '70s and the '80s. I hate to say that as well, because I want him to still be writing those kinds of startling, surreal plays, e.g., Curse of the Starving Class, True West, Buried Child (the original, not his disfiguring rewrite for Broadway), etc. And I hate to say that, too, because I want him to feel free to evolve artistically. But were Ages of the Moon not a play by Sam Shepard, it would not have been read, much less produced, by a nonprofit such as the Atlantic. Granted, they probably have a reciprocal relationship with the Abbey Theatre, which commissioned Shepard's play which Shepard wrote for the play's stars, Sean McGinley and Stephen Rea—all of which solves the non-mystery of an otherwise not remarkable play being presented here.
Gentle reader, these!! are the thoughts I was trying to avoid as I sat watching two fine actors trying to inject pathos and substance into a trying 80-minute non-dramatic drama that has one striking, lovely, and overlong speech near the end. This elliptical speech, about Byron's bizarre and beautiful reaction to the death of his wife is worthy of a much better play—this would be a cathartic moment in that play—the articulation of gentle love in a play filled with menacing ambiguity. In short, a great Sam Shepard play.
But this is the play that Sam Shepard has given us. Ames's wife kicked him out and he's banished to a cabin in the woods in rural Montana from which at 3 a.m. he drunkenly calls his old friend Byron after not speaking to him for years, and Byron shows up early the next morning to console him. And so they sit on the porch and we are meant to be intrigued by why Ames broke off the friendship with Byron. And yet they seem to have one of the best friendships I've ever encountered onstage or in life and so whatever the problem is, I just don't understand why they don't get over it!
Perhaps director Jimmy Fay has encouraged McGinley and Rea to make choices that render their gruff, lost-souled characters hopelessly likeable. Rea's Ames is drunker, more brooding, the loose cannon of the two—a sarcastic, benignly lecherous man-boy. McGinley's Byron is more cerebral, passive-aggressive in a well-meaning way, and generally well-equipped to take the petulant obloquy Ames sometimes hurls in his direction. They are both terrific actors, yet the play gives them no justifiable unease—nothing so painfully unacknowledged—to fill the many silences.
Aside from the aforementioned haunting dead-wife speech, there are a few other glimmers of signature Shepard strangeness, including the way their conversation happens in a real 80 minutes, yet at minute 1 it is noon and by minute 80, it's five a.m., and they are watching the eclipse of the moon. They look rather like Vladimir and Estragon, except without the despair. Or the hope. Or even a great deal of fatigue. Just tenderness.