The Tin Ceiling, St. Louis's most intriguingly original theater, asks that nearly existential question in its new revival of Sam Shepard's 1980 comedy. And, happily, the answer is "yes." Most of the time.
As we know, the director is a fairly modern invention, interceding between playwright and actor, actor and technician, and producer and supplier (and in 100 other standoffs) since the 19th century. Prior to that, his or her duties were filled (selfishly, if history is any judge) by the legendary "actor managers" like Irving or Beerbohm Tree. But whether or not the rise of the director in the artistic hierarchy was just part of the Industrial Age's overall explosion of all sorts of middle-managers, I will leave to greater minds. Maybe, in the Information Age, everything will hang on the word of the critic at last! (Insert "evil laughter" effect.)
But in any case, this True West cuts out the middle man, and passes the savings on to you. Robert Strasser (the Tin Ceiling's soft-spoken Artistic Director) becomes, by default, the actor-manager of this production, though he's utterly selfless in that capacity, and Andrew Byrd, who fills a lot of other posts in the company, is his co-star. I must reveal that, leading up to opening night, I honestly thought their casting would be exactly the opposite of what we see here: that the comical, goateed and vaguely sinister Mr. Byrd would play Lee, wandering in from the desert, where he'd lived a life of dog-fighting, burglary, and womanizing, and take up the job of wrecking the career of his harmless brother. Instead, Mr. Byrd is delightful as the chubby, clean-shaven and abjectly harmless Austin, a movie writer. And, further bucking my expectations, the tall, mild-mannered Mr. Strasser is gritty and ghastly as Lee, the dark, rangy desperado, leaving the his own gentler qualities back in the dressing room.
Yet, while the physical transformation in both men is truly remarkable, each one's 'natural performer' doesn't really pop out until they are joined on stage by a slightly older, more elegant authority figure: the Hollywood producer, played with evasive gentility by Rory Flynn. The moment he comes on, Mr. Byrd and Mr. Strasser each become sharper and funnier ... though to be fair, the story would require some of this new energy anyway, as Austin and Lee compete for his favor. But at the same time, because of that jolt of creative energy, it seemed as though the two younger men are suddenly deferring to Mr. Flynn, subconsciously appointing him the director by default: someone they had perhaps been trying to please, long before the audience ever showed up. I know this is all in my own head, but the difference before and after his arrival is startling.
Mr. Shepard sets up a quietly desperate standoff over the roles of men on the old frontier (actually in the far outer-ring suburbs, 40 miles east of Los Angeles). But to make the Pinteresque standoff work, a lot should happen between the lines. Austin should probably be more deeply frightened by his brother, and Lee should probably be more overtly oppressive and tormenting in the early going. But you never knowall of that may develop as the audience guides them in the opening weekend. Even if the first 20 minutes don't perk up, they will pass quickly enough, before the show finds its real footing. And I hate to make those opening scenes the albatross around the neck of the show, especially since Mr. Byrd proves himself enormously inventive and chameleonic in every other respect.
Of course, the lack of (initial) tension may not come from the lack of a director, entirely. The adjacent Typo Café (formerly the lobby of the theater) was noisy and crowded during most of the show opening night. And while this inspired a funny ad lib from Mr. Byrd, it also presented an unexpected challenge to the lonely standoff of those opening scenes: imagine a chubby Gary Cooper walking toward his fate on Main Street in High Noon, while a raucous party is going on in the town's saloon. The audience, watching quietly in the dark and hearing the commotion next door, can't help but wonder if they're in the right room or not.
Still a very good show, True West continues through July 27, 2008 at the corner of Compton and Cherokee (3159 Cherokee) in South St. Louis. For information, call (314) 374-1511 or visit www.tinceiling.org.
Poster design by Derek Simmons