A few weeks ago, when I read the announcement that Sam Shepard's True West - which opened last night at the Circle In The Square theatre - would delay its opening to allow Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly time for more rehearsal, since they would be alternating the major roles of Austin and Lee, I was surprised. Having these actors trade roles every third performance, in what is essentially a two man play, seemed to be nothing more than a last ditch grab for some sort of notoriety, the type of thing a desperate producer and director might come up with when they realized they were stuck with a bland, if workable production.
Certainly the first glimpse of Rob Howell's set you get on entering Circle In The Square doesn't help matters much. A smallish platform, shoved to the rear and only occupying a little more than half of Circle's oddly shaped stage, holds a table placed on what appears to be a circular rug of plastic grass, a counter, a sink, a refrigerator, a few hanging plants - you get the idea. It's a set any small, cost-conscious community theatre would be proud of.
The houselights dim. We are treated to some taped noise, which is described in the Playbill as "original music" by Claire van Kampen, the play starts, and all doubts about the quality of this production vanish.
True West - written over two decades ago - is classic Sam Shepard. Ostensibly an exercise in the simple psychology behind the sibling rivalry which divides two brothers, there is a great deal more than that going on under the surface. In spite of its basic, somewhat follow-the-formula sitcom construction and rudimentary dialogue, this dark, not very funny comedy manages to say significant things about American civilization and the way we have been socialized to instinctively assume a defensive posture in the face of our own limitations.
It also provides two roles, the brothers Austin and Lee, any actor would give his eye-teeth to attempt. Here they are played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who are giving lean, intense, highly focused performances the likes of which define the best of the art itself.
Don't go expecting the incandescent theatrical pyrotechnics or tour de force performances seen in last season's Salesman and Iceman. Shepard's True West is not of that caliber. You can anticipate wonderfully low key, well paced, and completely absorbing performances. Hoffman and Reilly, regardless of the role each is playing at the moment, transcend the limits of this production, and make True West one of the few "must see" plays of this season.
True West by Sam Shepard. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, with Robert LuPone and Celia Weston. Scenery and costumes by Rob Howell. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Sound by Jim van Bergen. Original music composed by Claire van Kampen. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet.
Matthew Warchus' production of True West was originally commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a co-production with the Donmar Warehouse.
Theatre: Circle In The Square, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY 10019 (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue at 50th Street)
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 12 and younger. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Please Note: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternate roles during each performance week.
Ticket prices: $65, Friday and Saturday Evenings $67.50
Student Rush tickets: $30 Student Rush tickets are available on the day of performance at the Box Office only. A valid Student ID must be presented, and there is a limit of two (2) tickets per person, subject to availability.
Tickets online: http://www.telecharge.com/
Tickets by phone: Tele-charge (212) 239-6200, or outside the NY metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM
Tickets by snail mail: True West, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998
Tickets by E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org