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  • Jonathan Kalb

Truth and True West

Sam Shepard’s True West has always been a magnet for celebrity hamming, particularly in the role of Lee, the drunk and broke, not-quite-civilized half of the brother pair at the play’s center. From Peter Boyle to John Malkovich to John C. Reilly and Phillip Seymour Hoffman to Ethan Hawke in the current Broadway revival, Lee has again and again provided movie stars (or near-stars—Malkovich was just rising then) a ready platform for lowlife antics and slovenly macho strutting. The role requires shameless scenery-chewing but it conveniently comes with legit-theater cred.

I don’t say this to carp. The play is what it is and I’ve enjoyed all the hamming as much as anyone. I didn’t see Boyle (almost no one did because that production closed shortly after opening when the author disclaimed it, protesting that Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones were movie stars imposed by Joe Papp), but I remember Malkovich, Reilly and Hoffman vividly. Each was a hilarious font of anarchic antics, a daft human coyote setting mayhem loose in a modest, So-Cal kitchen.

These antics all felt meaningful and moving rather than merely vain or showboaty, one realizes in retrospect, because they were rooted firmly in a believable sibling relationship. Every credible Lee was part of a symbiotic duo with his Austin, the other brother, a buttoned-up, domesticated, professional writer. Malkovich’s animalistic flamboyance was downright bizarre but it was no solo act. The performance drew reality and comic fuel from the equally weird, obliging patience of Gary Sinise’s Austin. Reilly and Hoffman too, who exchanged roles nightly, conjured a strange, sick co-dependency in two different ways. Their rivalry seemed to involve very specific unspoken rules about the limits of teasing, coaxing, flattering, threatening and more.

The biggest disappointment of the new Roundabout production starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano is that it wholly lacks this rich interdependence. I never believed for a moment that these actors were really brothers.

True West’s situation is that Lee and Austin both show up at their mother’s house while she’s away on vacation. Austin, who usually lives with his wife and kids “up north,” has come to write, tend house, and water plants, and Lee’s arrival spoils his quiet composure. Lee takes Austin’s car to commit petty burglaries, butts into Austin’s meeting with a strangely pliable movie producer named Saul (sharply played by Gary Wilmes), and bamboozles Saul into backing his ridiculously lame idea for a movie over Austin’s. The brothers then plunge into an absurdly intense struggle in which each adopts the other’s nature and tactics. Their battle is physical and psychological and also mythical—it’s been said that the brothers are the two sides of Shepard.

When we first see Hawke he’s standing in shadow behind the kitchen counter, dangling a 6-pack ominously from its plastic rings, instantly domineering and thug-like. That’s fine, and funny. But then he unfortunately sticks to that menacing note for the rest of the play, pretty much ignoring every chance the script offers to mix in other music. In this exchange early on, for instance, all he does is snarl when it’s pretty clear that Lee’s one-upmanship is also a tired joke between brothers, and maybe a plea for intimacy too.

Austin: How’s [the old man] doing?
Lee: Same. He’s doin’ just about the same.
Austin: I was down there too, you know.
Lee: What d’ya’want, an award? You want some kinda’ medal?
Austin: What’d he say?
Lee: He told me. Don’t worry.

Hawke never uses the brotherly tough talk to conduct any subtle negotiations over sympathy, care, or boundaries. Everything with him comes out as a straightforward play for power, a cool move on a hard surface, and parts of the play just make no sense from that angle. Lee’s encounter with Saul, for instance: Hawke relies so completely on bullying rather than charm when interacting with Wilmes that Saul’s decision to take Lee’s side is incoherent, even as comedy. In this production, it feels like a script lie.

Dano shares responsibility, of course. His mild Austin is the monotonous counterpoint to Hawke’s undifferentiated thug. Yet I’m not sure how much more Dano could’ve done in this circumstance. Shepard put Lee in the brotherly driver’s seat.

I’m tempted to speculate that the production’s British director, James Macdonald, either didn’t like or didn’t trust the American reality of this most realistic of Shepard’s family plays. How else to understand his choice to cast an actor as the guys’ mother (Marylouise Burke) who looks old enough to be their grandmother? Or his choice to frame the stage with a bright white light-rectangle that blasts our eyes in the blackouts and scene-shifts as if announcing the appearance of a magical Western Portal? Evidently, the play’s surreal and mythical elements were too subtle for Macdonald and needed punching up with neon.

I’ve long admired Ethan Hawke’s sustained commitment to the live, serious stage. I’m glad he keeps sticking his theatrical neck out in everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard to Chekhov to Brecht to Rabe. All his stage performances have had at least something searingly powerful in them, including True West, and a few have been brilliant. In some cases, though—True West and his Macbeth are the egregious examples for me—he just doesn’t listen enough to his stage partners or sufficiently collaborate with them on generating the play’s shared reality. It’s irresponsible in those cases not to call him on it. In fact, in criticism as in families, telling truths of that kind is the flip side of love.

Photo: Joan Marcus

By Sam Shepard

American Airlines Theatre

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