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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In True West Shepard, who unfortunately is no longer with us, explored his fascination with two-sidedness through a very dark but often comic battle royal between two brothers: Austin living the American Dream of a college degree followed by a writing career that supports a comfortable family life in the East, and which is about to blossom into really big-time success as a Hollywood writer. . . Lee, an uneducated drifter who's ten years his senior, following in their alcoholic father's footsteps.
The brothers' unanticipated reunion in their mom's spic and span, plant filled Los Angeles house triggers dissonance between them that dates back to their dysfunctional boyhood in Idaho, and reveals each man's insecurity and search for an authentic identity.
Austin is at Mom's house to take care of her plants while she's on an Alaskan vacation and uses the time there to polish up a script before meeting up with a Hollywood producer who's expressed interest in it. It doesn't take long for Lee's arrival to once again envelop the brothers in Pinteresque-cum-Shepardesque confrontations that date back to their dysfunctional boyhood in Idaho and that from the get-go hang like a dark cloud that's sure to burst into a devastating storm.
True to many a Shepard play, that storm will wreak havoc — in this case with Mom's neat home as well as Austin and Lee's relationship and each one's surface persona. Austin tries to be as welcoming to the unkempt yet intimidating loser brother. Yet it's clear (and understandable) that he hopes his visit will be a short one.
Having seen this most accessible of Shepard's plays several times I don't quite agree with those who would place it at the very top of any list of classic Twentieth Century masterpieces. However, it definitely is a highly entertaining tragicomedy. What's more, it's also a complex, multi-layered meditation on the American Dream, the changing American landscape and the hypocrisy of the Hollywood scene embodied by the character of Saul Kimmer.
Above all, Shepard's story is a gift for the actors playing this modern day Cain and Abel. Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano definitely belong in the ranks of outstanding interpreters of these siblings. While the alternating role playing that worked so well for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in the last Broadway production — and again for Lara Linney and Cynthia Nixon in last year's revival of The Little Foxes— Hawke and Dano do just fine without any special casting coups.
Hawke brings his previous connection with Shepard to his role —as actor in The Late Henry Moss, another play about two brothers, and as the director of the New Group's revival of Lie of the mind. He's truly extraordinary as the at once creepy and needy Lee. However, Dano is a more than worthy co-star. He convincingly lets us see the tension during the scenes showing him blander than the brother enamored of the mythic "true west" but also more in touch with the real world ("I swallow the smog. I watch the news in color. I shop in the Safeway"). The plot's twist that has Lee, who can't write, invade his writer brother's potential deal with the producer sends Austin into a Lee-like meltdown that gives Dano his share of star turns.
Dano is most memorable in the wild toaster scene. That's when, after disproving Lee's disdainful "You couldn't steal a toaster without losin' your lunch," Austin morphs into a hilarious blithe spirit, buttering toast as it pops out of the toasters he did indeed filch.
The two actors also display terrific chemistry. This applies not just to their verbal interchanges but their expressive body language.
The never seen alcoholic father is a potent presence in the brothers' interchanges and behavior. His influence is more evident in Lee, but despite having gotten far away, Austin hasn't completely escaped this dad's influence.
Two other characters do appear show up. In his two scenes Gary Wilmes's Saul Kimmer is Hollywood flim-flam personified. Mom, the other secondary character has even less stage time, but Marylouise Burke is an actress who can make even a walk-on part impressive.
Director James Macdonald wisely uses the theater's wide stage to have all nine scenes play out on a single unit set (finely detailed by Mimi Lien and with a neon frame that effectively lights up between scenes). Kaye Voyce's costumes, Jane Cox's lighting and Bray Poor's original music and sound design round out the excellent design team.
While Macdonald takes a bit too long with his build-up to the later and best scenes, he and this cast are presenting us with a production that's good enough to overlook some of the script's failure to provide more of a backstory. While the Roundabout's Upstage Guide dedicated to True West won't tell you just how Mom got to California and get money to buy her house and take vacations in Alaska, it is full of fascinating background about the world Shepard explored here and in his work. Be sure to pick one up in the lobby. Also, check out Curtainup's Sam Shepard chapter in Curtainup's Author's Album.
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True West by Sam Shepard
Directed by James Macdonald
Cast: Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin, Marylouise Burke as Mom and Gary Wilmes as Saul Kimmer
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lights: Jane Cox
Hair and wigs: Tom Watson
Dialect consultant: Kate Wilson
Fight choreographer: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: James Latus
Running Time: 2 hours, plus a 10 minute intermission American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street
From 12/27/18; opening;1/24/19; closing 3/17/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/30/19 press matinee.
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