Theater review: “True West”

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By Elyse Trevers

Good theater is replete with stories of dysfunctional families: couples squabbling, parents at odds with their children, warring siblings. One particularly volatile theatrical interaction is between brothers Lee and Austin in Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, “True West.” The revival, directed by James MacDonald and presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, features Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin.

The play begins with Austin serenely writing in his mother’s home when, unexpectedly, his estranged brother Lee appears. Lee is a wanderer who just spent three months alone in the desert. In contrast to his educated brother, Lee is uneducated and is a thief.

Austin is a screenwriter in negotiations with a producer who has expressed interest in his romance story. It doesn’t take long to understand the dynamics between the two. Austin is gentle and seeks approval, especially from his brother. Lee is a cowboy wannabe and is uncouth and brash. Lee is aggressive and argumentative and even though Austin resists him, ultimately the younger man backs down, even pacifying his older brother. Despite their relationship, each seems slightly envious of the other. Lee notes, “I always wondered what it be like to be you,” to which Austin replies, “I always used to picture you somewhere.” The audience gets a sense of it in the second act when, for a few lines, their dialogue seems reversed.

Austin has scheduled a meeting with his producer, and although he asks Lee to stay away, it is no surprise when Lee returns early, carrying a TV he’s stolen. Lee coerces the producer into playing golf with him early the next morning. Before the game, he gets Austin to type his own story for a movie. Austin feels that it is implausible and mocks the storyline which features a horse chase in the desert between two adversaries.

The tension between the two brothers is exacerbated when Austin’s producer opts for Lee’s screenplay idea instead of Austin’s. Like Austin, we are incredulous at the producer accepting it. Predictably there is a blow-up between the two brothers and the two wreck their mother’s house. Often brothers compete and many even roughhouse but these two cause devastation. Then their diminutive squeaky-voiced mother (Mary Louise Burke) returns home early. In front of their mom, the two strapping men become meek little boys. The scene is actually quite amusing. Designed by by Mimi Lien, the small kitchen-dining area is warm and cozy. The setting, filled with plants and antiques, is cluttered and fussy. The more to toss around! Some other humor (and there is a considerable amount) comes from a bunch of toasters and a loaf of bread. (Better seen than described.)

As soon as Hawke appeared on stage, fans in the audience began to laugh at his character. Hawke is loud, aggressive and slovenly, but his performance feels forced. He is trying too hard, pushing and snarling. Dano gives a better performance, expressing frustration and repression in an understated manner. Dano is also a far more charming drunk than Hawke who is distasteful.

“True West” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 (losing to “Night, Mother.”) Yet there are several weaknesses in the play and behavior that is implausible. The end feels a bit ambiguous, and, in fact, my colleague and I had completely different interpretations. Classic plays resonate with audiences, even with changes in time, fashion and mores. Despite interpretations and an unrestrained performance by Hawke, “True West” deals with the relationship of two brothers, their frustrations and their dreams and that is timeless.

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