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True West
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Sam Shepard's 1980 True West begins in a slow simmer, the tale of two brothers, one educated and law-abiding, the other audaciously raw. Through them unfolds the deconstruction of family, American values, the nostalgic of the old West, and the landscape of a vast barren desert. By the end of the play, director James Macdonald has boosted the heat to a rolling boil of chaos and violence, and the brothers, we see, are not so different after all.

Shepard wrote about True West, "I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with."

True West takes place in the 1970', on Mimi Lien's kitchen/dining room set, the kitchen tidy with wallpaper printed with cherries and Formica countertops in a nondescript suburban house east Los Angeles. The large window framed with hanging plants is cramped against the house next door, no sense of greenery. Austin (Paul Dano) is a thin, bespectacled, screenwriter working on his portable typewriter at the table is surrounded by papers, cigarettes, and a lighted candle. Leaving his wife and kids back home up north, Austin has holed up in his mother's house while she is vacationing and this script might be his big break. He needs a quiet place to finish and hopefully sell it to a producer. He is alone here, and the only sounds are Bray Poor's sound design of crickets and barking coyotes.

Until recently, however, before he was interrupted by the return of his estranged older brother, Lee, (Ethan Hawke), grungy, beer can in one hand and six-pack dangling in his other, clothes dirty and torn, his eyes narrow with threatening slyness. Lee showed up after wandering alone for months in the Mojave Desert, planning to take cover here and break into neighborhood homes to steal appliances.

Obviously, Lee is not the most welcome presence for Austin. Slowly, a surreal black comedy tinderbox of tension, begins to unravel as Austin tries to write and Lee brazenly plans petty burglaries and drinks beer.

At first, Hawke owns the stage as Lee, impudent, self-serving, and jealous of Austin, Lee often comical with shamelessness and chilling with his sudden blasts of anger. His expressions are sly with an obvious intrinsic electricity about to spark. Austin is well aware of this volatility, especially now when he has a meeting with Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes), a smarmy, stereotypical bigwig producer, about his script. He is apprehensive about Lee bollixing up the meeting and ruining his big chance, so he lends his brother his car to get him out of the house.

Finally leaving the house, Lee tells Austin, "Hey, ya' know, if that uh-story of yours doesn't go over with the guy, tell him I got I a couple a' 'projects' he might be interested in. Real commercial. Full suspense, true-to-life stuff."

Words of warning for Austin. Lee says later, "He thinks we're the same person." Lee has vision but no discipline while Austin can write but is lacking vision. Soon Lee, believe it or not, begins to write a script that his brother can fix up. Austin also begins to transition. He exhibits a careless and aggressive side, even breaking and entering to steal toaster. The characters blend, separate, blend again, moving to inhabit the other's life, the tension building until bedlam tyrannizes both men, and the upends the set helter-skelter.

The mother, played by the dependable Marylouise Burke, returns early. She is a neat, bland and slightly off-center woman, having settled in a neat and bland suburb. Now she walks into the shambles of her once tidy kitchen, strewn with toasters. Worst of all, her plants are all dead. Unable to deal with the wreckage, she calmly leaves for a motel, stating, "I can't stay here. This is worse than being homeless."

True West

MTC at Samuel J. Friedman
261 - West 47th Street. NYC
Previews: Dec. 27, 2018. Opening: Jan. 24, 2019. Closing: Mar. 17, 2019
Running Time: Two hours, 15 min. One intermission.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Marylouise Burke, Gary Wilmes
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Directed: James Macdonald

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
February 2019

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