A rock ’em, sock ’em shootout at the Not-OK Corral, True West might be Sam Shepard’s most accessible play. What other nightmare-posing-as-comedy boasts felony assault by golf club on an innocent typewriter and a syncopated chorus of toasters dispensing its goods with the precision of a Rockettes kickline? No other Shepard work could reasonably be mistaken for a David Mamet Hollywood satire, that’s for sure.
Set in the kitchen and living area of a striver-class Los Angeles tract house, True West is packed with images that have an almost sacred place in the temple of American iconography, from the wide-open West of an urban cowboy’s dreams to the studio factory that spits out lone heroes and mad princes, charismatic thieves and lovers done wrong. And in its story of two brothers who are hustling different – but not so different – versions of those dreams, Shepard bleeds the romance out of their stories in a comedy ultimately as dark as noir. A comedy of terrors.
This is what we see at opening: Austin (Paul Dano) is sitting at a table on our left, writing in a notebook and pecking away at a portable, non-electric typewriter, illuminated by candle and moonlight seeping through the weave of houseplants hanging by the sliding door to the outside. Crickets can be heard, and the swelling yaps of coyotes coming down from the hills in search of unleashed Lhasa Apsos and other unsupervised pets in unpenned yards.
Across the room in the kitchen, Austin’s older brother Lee (Ethan Hawke) lurks in half-light. A fast-depleting six-pack dangles from one hand, his uncertain posture indicating that he’s more than halfway to blazed. He moves about the space like a predator, maybe like a coyote himself, looking for fresh meat. It’s their mother’s house, and Lee is quick to point out that he has as much right to be there as Austin, who is finishing up a screenplay he’s been working on for months.
A grifter and thief – he’s casing the neighborhood for boostable electronics – Lee recently spent some months living alone in the Mojave desert, a favorite Shepard location for its agreeably fungible value as a symbol: of menace, of man-against-nature, of nature’s indifference to man’s attempt to civilize it. Lee has little regard for Austin’s vocation. (“That art … I did some a’ that. I fooled around with it. No future in it.”) The banter is all setup for the arrival of Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes), the producer Austin’s been working with. Lee charms Saul with a bizarre riff on the Kirk Douglas/Dalton Trumbo Western Lonely Are the Brave. (“The man dies for the love of a horse!” – well, nu-uh.)
It almost goes without saying that soon the brothers’ roles have reversed. Lee is determined to force Austin to write the “authentic” Western he has conned Saul into backing.
For all its predictability, True West offers choice morsels to a well-matched pair of actors and a director with a flair for melodrama slathered on with not too heavy a hand. All of these are missing from the enervating fiasco that opened on Broadway Thursday at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre. It’s the worst production since the play’s infamous New York premiere in 1980, in a staging disowned by the playwright, at the Public Theater. That didn’t prevent it from getting several noteworthy revivals, including the Broadway production in 2000 that featured John C. Reilly and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, memorably trading places as Austin and Lee.
The current outing, indifferently staged by James Macdonald as though he were afraid the script would bite him, drains every ounce of life from the play. Perhaps Dano, as the post-preppie Austin, and Hawke, as the loose-cannon Lee, never hit it off during rehearsal. For whatever reason, they never connect as siblings entwined in a death-dance. Dano is slack to the point of disappearing, hardly the determined writer fighting for his life, while Hawke’s effete mannerisms undermine the wild swings between menace and con-artistry that make Lee so intimidating a presence.
The production is such a misfire that even Mimi Lien, among the most inventive and insightful designers working today, has come a-cropper with a set so reductively boring it seemed necessary to frame it in a garish fluorescent halo. It serves only to throw the mess within into high relief.