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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Naturalistic True West at 12 Miles West

Also see Bob's review of You May Go Now

Paul Molnar and Nathaniel Kressen
The metaphoric aspects of Sam Shepherd's sharply etched, taut True West take a back seat to a naturalistic style of family melodrama in director Lenny Bart's production.  This approach makes for lively, engrossing theatre.  However, for those unfamiliar with the play, the complex themes underlying the melodrama are likely to pass by unnoticed here.

The focus of the play is the bitter relationship of two seemingly very unlike brothers.  Austin is an Ivy League graduate and cocky screen writer.  He has a wife and children back east, but is residing in his mother's modest suburban home in a sere valley east of Los Angeles.  His mother is on vacation in Alaska, and Austin is at her house to complete his screenplay and confer with a producer who is about to put it into production.  Unexpectedly, his wounded and volatile brother Lee has appeared at the house.  The dodgy Lee had left home without completing school and has since rattled around the Mojave Desert where he has subsisted largely on the proceeds of petty theft.  Austin makes his distrust of the alcohol-fueled Lee apparent by refusing to loan him his car and trying to get rid of him with a cash handout.  The hostile, emotionally unstable Lee menaces Austin repeatedly.

Lee, who has a story idea for a western, manages to co-opt Austin's producer, Saul Kimmer.  Kimmer abandons production plans for Austin's screenplay in order to put into production Lee's story idea which he considers more commercial.  Although he hates Lee's story, Austin is coerced into writing the screenplay in order to keep hope alive that Kimmer will produce his story and screenplay.  In a reversal of roles,  Lee is pursuing the completion of a screenplay while the unraveling Austin has turned to the succor of alcohol.

The destructiveness of a severely dysfunctional family is powerfully demonstrated (the brother's wastrel, alcoholic father is a major presence here although he never appears, as is their late arriving mother whose self-centeredness clearly added damage of its own to her sons).  The limits placed on freedom and individuality by the social and economic demands of a modern competitive and judgmental society are clearly conveyed in this production.

What is not conveyed is that True West at its core is a modern American Western.  Not only does it rail against the strictures of modern society, but it mourns the loss of our ethos of the unfettered American heroes of our westward expansion. This ethos gave Americans the basis for striving to be a nation of admirably fair, strong, self-reliant and determined individuals.   There are psychological complexities that are buried in a naturalistic approach to True West. Thus, for me, there is a loss of resonance and depth in the service of realistic melodrama.

Lenny Bart and his talented cast have fulfilled Bart's vision in excellent fashion.  Paul Molnar as the menacing Lee gives us a multi-dimensional portrayal which integrates the conflicting behaviors and emotions of a flesh and blood Lee who, despite the fearfulness which he engenders, also engages our sympathy.  Nathaniel Kressen's lightly deft portrayal of Austin at first allows the audience to gradually discover his smug, selfish nature.  This facilitates Kressen to portray Austin's fall under duress seamlessly.  Paul Mantell as Kimmer and Gloria Falzer as Mom are most able in performances which are stylistically in tune with the production.

The 12 Miles West production of True West is an engrossing one.  It will be most rewarding to those who remember that there are layers below the surface of Sam Shepard's play which are not well illuminated in a naturalistic staging.

True West continues performances (Thursday-Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 3 PM) through March 22, 2009 at the 12 Miles West Theatre in residence at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-259-9187; online:

True West by Sam Shepard; directed by Lenny Bart

Austin…………...Nathaniel Kressen
Lee……………………….Paul Molnar
Kimmer………………....Paul Mantell
Mom…………………….Gloria Falzer

Photo courtesy of 12 Miles West

- Bob Rendell

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