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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
— Simon Saltzman
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