Thursday, June 10, 2010

true west review

True West is playing at the Vic for another three weekends, and well worth checking out.

Here's my review in the Post.

Here's the slightly different version I turned in. :)


When it comes to the dynamics of family, Sam Shepard has a unique gift for peeling back the scabs we thought had healed long ago.

And then dousing the raw wounds with gasoline.

Few playwrights capture so eloquently and yet with such brute force the dreadful angst of what it means to be kin. Shepard knows that the honestly examined chronicle of family contains at least traces of a peculiar, haunting sense of loss, an unspoken shared remembrance of tiny failures, tiny regrets.

Through the interactions of Austin and Lee, the adult sibling protagonists of his 1980 play “True West,” Shepard manages to convey a series of poignant snapshots: we can visualize the ancient broken toys, the fraying cardboard game boxes, the half-remembered fights and the inevitable tears.

Beyond that, Shepard also examines notions of identity, and whether we can truly escape the family that raised us, however far we travel.
The show opens on Austin (Brian Brooks), a Hollywood screenwriter who is pure khakis and minivans, a Polo-shirted distillation of the suburban American Dream, working on a new project while house-sitting for his mother.

Enter slovenly Lee (sloven-Lee?) played by Nils Swanson. Austin’s formerly estranged brother is his polar opposite: swilling down beer, wearing thrift-store slacks and a grubby wife-beater, he talks of breaking into houses and stealing appliances as his major short-term goals.

If Austin is Diet Coke, then Lee is his Mentos.

For any other playwright this could easily devolve into some depressing rehash of “The Odd Couple.” But Shepard, in allowing the temperature to reach a slow boil--and by throwing in scenes in which Austin’s producer Saul (Terry Burnsed) becomes infatuated with Lee and his screenplay idea--allows Austin’s civilized veneer to be agonizingly scraped off, while forcing Lee to acknowledge that his confidence isn’t always backed up by capability.

While much has been made of the too-clever notion that Austin and Lee may actually be two halves of one individual, Shepard himself has said that he was looking more at the notion of each individual human’s internal contradictions, rather than some metaphorical split.

And as we learn more, we see the brothers are indeed of the same ilk. The two men are ground down to their essence, each shaped like a lens, each coming more sharply into focus, each becoming more like his opposite number.

At the same time, they become more like themselves.

In a thankless role, Linda Suttle as the boys’ mother is irritable, baffled and hilariously clueless, as one would expect of a woman who raised these two.

Terry Burnsed’s Saul Kimmer is amusing as an effeminate Hollywood producer, with more layers than his Don Johnson suit might indicate at first. But while allusions to a sexual interest between Saul and Lee can be read into the script, director Terry Dodd may have let some of the jokes get a bit too obvious: Saul talking of Lee’s “raw talent” while holding up his arm at an angle springs to mind.

Indeed, for such a menacingly dark--and, granted, darkly funny--play, the pacing and jokiness at times undercut the actual words the characters were saying. Dodd has the show down to a taut hour and a half, but the banter was so rapid-fire that at times the actors didn’t seem at all connected to what they were saying, much less to what had just been said to them. Shepard’s other great gift--his realism--is thus somewhat lost.

Still and all, the show is a keeper. Swanson is stellar as the dirtbag older brother Lee: uneducated but cagey, Lee possesses that uniquely manipulative, white-trash cunning one can see in former half-term governors of Alaska and the like.

And Brooks’ Austin is the quintessential nice guy who finishes last. An early scene where he gets shunted aside while Lee barges into conversation with producer Saul is both sad and hilarious. One criticism is that when he gets angry in later scenes it can seem forced, as if a switch has been thrown rather than an organic, internal build to that anger--although some of this could also be attributed to the pacing.

Ultimately though, Dodd and his cast do capture the essence of Shepard’s classic: the realization that family, the people we are supposed to know best, are often the most mysterious of strangers.


This obviously isn't Brian and Nils, but it's a pretty cool True West promo pic from the 2000 revival.

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