by Michael Bracken
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, True West is arguably Sam Shepard’s funniest play. But don’t worry. There’s no shortage of the playwright’s penchant for ominous menace hovering over the Roundabout Theatre Company production that just opened at the American Airlines Theatre.
Crisply directed by James Macdonald, this revival stars Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin, brothers who wear their sibling rivalry on their sleeves. Or at least older brother Lee does, with a defensive edge that’s as comic as it is intense, fueled by disdain and good old-fashioned nastiness. Austin is housesitting for his vacationing mother, and Lee has shown up from out of the blue.
Hawke is on fire before he’s even left the starting gate. His Lee is the darkest incarnation of the alpha male, a two-bit criminal who thrives on bullying his better pedigreed brother. Lee clearly resents Austin, resents the very things he mocks, Austin’s education, intellect, and success, especially his success.
He pounces upon every word out of Austin’s mouth, challenges every assumption, twists even the most innocent pronouncement into a perceived slight, grounds for an angry, verbally abusive attack that stops just short of physical assault. Hawke uses everything he has – tone, pitch, volume, movement – to establish himself as predominant.
But as intimidating as Lee is, he’s equally funny. When he turns Austin’s words around, his clever retorts drip with subversive humor. He’s on the attack, to be sure, an attack sharpened with sinister lowlife wit.
Austin responds with fear and appeasement. He tries to hold his own, but he’s no match for Lee’s brute force. In fact, Dano makes him more of a milquetoast than he needs to. There might be even more to Lee’s overpowering him if Austin weren’t such an easy target.
The extended game of cat and mouse takes place in the expansive kitchen of a suburban residence, presumably ranch-style, east of Los Angeles. Artfully imagined by set designer Mimi Lien, it gives off a pale yellow glow, glossy but slightly faded. Austin, a screenwriter, is scheduled to meet with his producer, Saul, the following day. So, as adamant as he is that Lee not borrow his car, he gives in to make sure Lee is not there when Saul (Gary Wilmes) arrives.
Saul, all smiles and no substance, tells Austin he hasn’t been this confident about a project in ages. All is well until Lee arrives home early with a television set, pilfered from one of Mom’s neighbors, under his arm.
Lee turns on his barfly charm and lures Saul into a golf game the next morning. By the eighteenth hole, whether on a bet or on merit is unclear, he has sold Saul a story idea to replace Austin’s, who adamantly declines the offer write the script. Suddenly roles are reversed: Lee’s the writer (in desperate need of Austin’s help) and Austin the bitter bystander.
Although the brothers’ contention is a pressure cooker waiting to explode, the second act is not as riveting as the first. It’s as if Shepard feels obligated to show us how each brother fits or doesn’t fit into the other’s shoes, and it’s a little forced at times. Things cool down until the explosive final scene. Mom (Marylouise Burke) returns to find her kitchen a shambles and her sons at each other’s throats, literally.
Burke is the perfect tonic. With her squeaky voice and deadpan delivery, she suggests a tension-easing family outing to see Picasso at the local museum. Not to be a spoiler, but no one sees Picasso.
Jane Cox’s lighting tends toward the dark side, emphasizing the play’s noir personality. But between scenes a blindingly bright light framing the stage glares momentarily, then fades, underscoring the tension it follows and precedes. Costume designer Kaye Voyce gets it right, from Mom’s perfectly appointed suit and matching luggage to Lee’s been-around-the-block-a-few-times raincoat. Macdonald’s precise direction makes a taut drama even tighter.
True West. Through March 17 at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). Two hours, fifteen minutes, one intermission. www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus