Theater Review: TRUE WEST (VS. Theatre in L.A.)

by Tony Frankel on October 12, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Sam Shepard’s domestic disruption True West hasn’t left the theatrical landscape since it first premiered with Peter Coyote at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in 1980. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1982 production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise remains legendary and Roundabout’s Broadway outing with Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano just closed last March. Now Vs. Theatre on Pico offers a production so intimate that you may feel like you’re sitting at the kitchen table with Cain and Able-like brothers — and there’s no escape.

Set in 1980 in an out-of-the-way Southern California suburb, it remains a visceral look at played-out Wild West stereotypes, familial envy and revenge, and false values surfacing as Hollywood clichés. As with David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, it depicts Tinsel Town as anything but a meritocracy. And as with Harold Pinter’s plays, it’s about how loved ones can displace or replace each other, trading places through implacable identity crises and psychological warfare.

Squatting in and ultimately vandalizing their mother’s comfortable, homey place, Austin (Johnny Clark) and Lee (Andrew Hawkes) are dangerously different brothers who ideally should be separated by a court order. House-sitting for mom while she’s mysteriously in Alaska, Austin is the responsible son, a budding studio screenwriter on the make and treading on success. He pecks at his typewriter, struggling to finish his treatment of a love-story screenplay for producer Saul (Robert Maffia). In contrast, making an unexpected visit that soon becomes a hostile takeover, Lee is a predatory drifter and grifter — a cat burglar who promotes dog fights. He’s spent three months in the desert, clearly confusing homelessness with authenticity. And he carries a lot of unprocessed anger at his broke, drunken jailbird dad, and resentment of Austin’s fortunes and supposedly unearned security. As with most brothers who are reunited after years apart, old ways of being pop up like bread out of a toaster.

Lee soon develops a sinister and suspicious interest in Austin’s storytelling skills, which he thinks he can match with his more genuine grasp of the old — and new — West. He comes up with a crack-brained scenario for a prairie caper involving jealous foes chasing each other across a tornado-ridden Texas panhandle, first in cars, then horses. Once the producer mysteriously shifts gears and becomes interested in a screenplay idea by Lee, the brothers — one a passive-aggressive chameleon and con-artist, the other a too-tractable dupe — slowly and painfully get caught up in a tragedy of transference. Once Mom (Carole Goodman, who sounds like she came home from a year in the Bronx, not Alaska) arrives at her now-trashed home, she’s revealed as a hapless enabler who prefers looking at icebergs or trying to meet Picasso instead of preventing her boys from committing fratricide.

The first thing that struck me was how much the production seems to have been transferred from 1980 itself: Danny Cistone’s 1970s kitchen is crammed with kitschy crap; Gelareh Khalioun’s outfit for Austin makes him look like an off-duty cop in a 1970s’ Quinn-Martin production; and Lindsay Jones’s sound of crickets and wailing coyotes creates an air of an uncrammed suburb. Pulling no more punches than the play, Scott Cummins’ kick-ass staging plays up the violence at the expense of detailing the sibling’s ultimate switcheroo (and because we’re a few feet from Ned Mochel’s fight scenes, they felt a bit staged). Mr. Clark (Artistic Director of Vs.) is good at showing Austin’s too-nice guy out of touch with his feelings and plagued by gratuitous guilt; missing was the fear of the snarling, surly Mr. Hawkes, who certainly conveys Lee’s alpha-male, bully-boy pyrotechnics. What’s less obvious (as in hardly evident) is the insinuating charm that would win over the magnificent Maffia’s pliable producer. As such, both comedy and — even more important — the scariness of the play are somewhat dulled.

What stays sure is the drama’s cage-match ferocity — perhaps its own reason for being — erupting between two mutually exclusive brothers. To cite one of the many Western clichés that Shepard undermines, this house ain’t big enough for the both of them.

photos by Carlos R. Hernandez

True West
VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd.
Fri & Sat at 8
ends on August 31, 2019 EXTENDED to November 2, 2019
for tickets, visit BPT

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