New York City Theater
American Airlines Theater
“Vs” should stand for the latest revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” Never clearer in the history of this funny and absorbing comedy-drama are the binary elements of “versus” that give the work its power.
Just as two brothers conflict, so, too, do themes clash: dark vs. light, country vs. city, agitation vs. rest, scruffy vs. pristine, art vs. commerce, nature vs. civilization, west vs. east, even beer vs. coffee. A coyote’s “howl” in the desert is a tame “yap” in town.
Austin’s house-sitting at his mother’s while she’s on vacation in Alaska. Enter his wayward, bullying brother, Lee, just back from time in the desert searching for their absent, alcoholic father. Harassing and interrupting Austin, a writer trying to finish his screenplay, Austin admits to his habit of stealing TVs from houses.
Austin wants Lee to leave, at least temporarily, so as not to gum up the works when a Hollywood film producer arrives to assess Austin’s screenplay. Borrowing Austin’s car, Lee promises to return at a particular time. But he comes back while the producer is still around and makes up a western genre story that intrigues the producer more than Austin’s ideas do and which Austin criticizes as “too real . . . too much like real life.” Lee embodies that life with all its dangers and contradictions, its expectations and disappointments.
Shepard is our poet of collapse. The true west represents a purity to which the rest of the country can only aspire. The likes of Hollywood, as far west as you can go, has corrupted and destroyed the Republic as surely as the brothers trash their mother’s house.
After a first act which begins to drift, the second is ironic, hilarious and violent. Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin switch positions without switching characters. They are the same, though different.
Hawke, cheated out of an Oscar nomination for his role in the film “First Reformed,” shows a depth as Lee that’s truly startling. In a line, a look, he suggests a lifetime of envy and anger. In little ways – how he drinks beer, how he huddles over the typewriter – Hawke creates a skuzzy character fueled by drugs, booze and petty thievery.
Dano’s Austin is the perfect foil, the well-groomed “good” boy who turns “bad.” His owl-like look, his startled disbelief that his dreams have been hijacked, his sudden murderous actions are impressively delineated. When his frustrations finally break forth, Dano seems to scare himself, reacting in ways that surprise even him.
As their wide-eyed mother, Marylouise Burke doesn’t overdo ditziness and Gary Wilmes’s producer suggests just enough smarminess. Director James Macdonald has a firm hand on the play’s ever-changing rhythms. Mimi Lien’s set, with lighting designer Jane Cox’s blindingly lit inner proscenium, Kaye Voyce’s costumes and Bray Poor’s music and sounds immerse the audience in a world of surface normalcy.
This is one of Sam Shepard’s major works, showing us that where we are is where we’ve always been. “Isn’t that what the old guys did?” asks Lee. “The Forefathers. Candlelight burning into the night? Cabins in the wilderness?"
-- David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 4, 2019