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Critic: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 22, 2000. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `True West’

The first time I saw Sam Shepard’s "True West"

was in 1981 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. It was a troubled production

that disturbed its author sufficiently for him to dissociate himself

from it. Troubled as the production may have been, the play was an

unforgettable and undeniably important work.

A year later a somewhat "True(r) West" showed up Off-Broadway

in a rightfully acclaimed production starring John Malkovich and Gary

Sinise. This one seemed to reach further into the play’s metaphysical

underpinnings. Now, 18 years later, Shepard’s play is on Broadway

and has all the earmarks of being a major hit — Shepard’s first

— thanks to the performances of its two stars, Philip Seymour

Hoffman and John C. Reilly, and the direction of Matthew Warchus.

This no-holds-barred production, we assume, has Shepard’s full endorsement.

A novel and effective device for this production is to have Hoffman

and Reilly, who play two very different brothers, exchange roles for

alternate performances. Does this mean I intend to go back? You bet.

At the performance I saw Hoffman played Lee, and Reilly, Austin. Although

I can’t imagine it could be any better, I will undoubtedly meet people

who say the opposite is true. Warchus is repeating the concept he

first used in his 1994 production for London’s Donmar Warehouse. When

two such dynamic, well-matched, and contrasting contenders are at

the center of this battle of the ids, the idea works brilliantly.

Shepard grittily dramatizes the creative process at work at its most

primitive and humorous level. Two brothers (possibly representing

alter egos), are seen at first baiting each other and then brutally

fighting it out while a bizarre metamorphosis begins to take place.

Under Warchus’ guidance, this highly theatricalized study of the evolving

artist brings the intensity and scrutiny to the play that it deserves.

The environment of the Circle in the Square, rarely used but wonderfully

appropriate for special plays, allows us to see the action in a three-quarter-round

ring well-suited to a championship bout such as this is.

The setting, brilliantly designed by Rob Howell, is at first an immaculate

modern kitchen right off the House Beautiful assembly line. The airy,

California-style furniture and elaborate display of hanging and potted

plants would make Martha Stewart green with envy. What it looks like

at the end of the play is for you to discover (God help the stage

manager and crew after every performance).

The current Broadway revival is having a lot of fun, not only with

the setting, but also with the sound effects of suburbia that include

laugh-inducing chirping crickets. But it is the play’s personal demons

that make the loudest noises, including the occasional heart-stopping

silences of the combatants that help make the play so unpredictable.

The night I attended, the audience seemed to be primed, perhaps even

a bit overeager, like bloodthirsty fight fans, to respond to the humor,

as well as to the violence.

An apparent slob and ne’er-do-well, except for some

strong ethics regarding truth and honesty combined with a penchant

for robbery, Lee (Hoffman) has returned, after a five-year sojourn

on the Mojave Desert, to his mother’s house in a California suburb.

Austin (Reilly), left to water "Mom’s" plants while he works

on yet another pedestrian screenplay, has a more clinical and commercial

approach to his work; he is at once in conflict with Lee’s obsession

to challenge his brother on his own turf. Beneath their slyly concealed

agendas, we get only a glimmer of their true feelings, as each brother

appears to harbor a long-standing, deep-seated, attraction to the

life of the other. Concealed agendas is what Shepard does best.

The suddenly disruptive and often violent invasion of Austin’s world,

and the eventual reversal of powers, as Lee manipulates an opportunistic

slick film producer (Robert Lupone), leads to a power play fraught

with boozing, brawling, and general devastation. If Lee is a hearty

but frustrated survivor, his dysfunctional nature is never more hilariously

shown than when he slowly and systematically destroys — make that

decimates — a typewriter, in a futile attempt to write a "true-to-life"

screenplay of his own. Hoffman, whose supporting performance in the

recent film "The Talented Mr. Ripley" almost stole the picture

from its stars, certainly steals the thunder in the trash-the-typewriter

scene, as he scrupulously and ceremoniously removes every key and

function that dares to cross him.

As the psychological warfare builds in exact proportion to the results

of the physical donnybrook, director Warchus sees to it that more

crushed beer cans, burnt toast (don’t ask), and dead plants fill the

stage than can be found at the local dump. The now almost classic

"pop-up toasters" scene is taken to its ultimate and most

hilarious burn out. Sloppily dressed in baggy pants and a soiled undershirt,

a seedily menacing Hoffman becomes a devilishly disruptive presence.

Also sturdy, but noticeably more vulnerable in neater attire, Austin

fights back like a bear dislodged from his winter stump. But Reilly,

as Austin, who is also to be seen co-starring with Hoffman in the

film "Magnolia," is also boyishly disarming, and demonstrates

an instinctual flair for reversing his nicer more genteel nature.

I have never been a fan of the play’s resolution, in which the mother

(Celia Weston), a model of disinterested self-absorption, returns

unexpectedly from a trip to Alaska to see an exhibit of Picasso’s

work, believing the artist to be alive. Except for this too tidy ending,

the play is a relentless bout of super-egos, each vying for dominance

and power. Warchus’s role in bringing out the best of "True West"

is noted, even as his recent attempt to bring Shepard’s "Simpatico"

to the screen was less successful.

Critic’s note: Although Irish playwright Martin McDonough scored big

with "Beauty Queen of Leenane," his next play to open on Broadway

was "Lonesome West." The underrated (it lasted but a few weeks)

play (possibly an homage to "True West"?), in which two feuding

brothers also spend most of the play battling it out, until their

home (in Western Ireland) is similarly trashed, may have suffered

by being in the long shadow of Shepard’s more psychologically provocative

play. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

True West, Circle in the Square, 50th Street, west of

Broadway, New York. $65. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

$65 & $67.50.

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Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway reservations can

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arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund.


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