WHAT "True West"
WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
INFO From $59; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE A painfully slow build for Sam Shepard's dark comedy.
Sam Shepard’s "True West," the 1980 work now at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, has always been a brutal evisceration of the American dream — especially the part about the good life in suburbia.
But Shepard being Shepard, every line is open to multiple interpretations as he dives into other diverse themes, among them the disintegration of the American family, violence and masculinity. On the surface, it's sibling rivalry on steroids, a dark comedy about two brothers dealing with what DNA has thrown at them.
Paul Dano is Austin, a clean-cut family man working on a screenplay in his mother’s Southern California tract house while she’s off to Alaska. All he's supposed to do is keep her plants alive. Working at his typewriter (remember, it's a period piece), he gets an unwelcome visit from his brother, Lee (Ethan Hawke, feral and gritty), a petty thief who’s spent the past few months in the Mojave Desert. Can you say oil and water?
Director James Macdonald gives this latest revival a painfully slow build, making the first act somewhat tedious. And the cinematic style, the stage ringed in white lights that flash unnecessarily bright during scene changes, is more of a distraction than anything else.
As the sounds of crickets and coyotes get louder, the brothers bicker as only brothers can until things disintegrate into darker territory. Lee bamboozles a producer (Gary Wilmes as a slightly sleazy Hollywood bigwig) into abandoning Austin’s project for his own idea, a true Western (one potential explanation for the title) about some guys who get lost in the desert. Big bucks are promised and tables are turned: Austin staging his own mini crime spree involving toasters, Lee trying to coerce his brother into writing the movie and helping their destitute, alcoholic father in the process.
Dano and Hawke are at their best in the final scenes, compelling and convincing as they come unglued in a drunken battle of wills. They tear each other apart, and eventually everything else, in their alcohol-induced rage (back to that DNA). By the time their mother (Marylouise Burke, oddly unruffled by the circumstances) returns early, the house is a shambles — think saloon after a bar fight. Lee's taken a golf club to everything, beer cans and booze bottles clutter every surface. And those precious plants? Wilted to the point of no return.
Things turn increasingly violent (a phone cord stands in for a lasso), and it becomes ever more difficult to tell the brothers apart. In the end, it seems we're looking at two sides to one personality. Shepard's perhaps?