Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 24, 2019
True West by Sam Shepard. Directed by James Macdonald. Set design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Bray Poor. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Dialect consultant Kate Wilson. Fight choreographer Thomas Schall. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Marylouise Burke, and Gary Wilmes.
A chorus of howling coyotes, barking dogs, and chirping crickets provides the soundtrack to the play, a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize. It is a wondrous stew of playfulness, absurdity and menace set in a desert-encroaching enclave of tract housing where the call of the wild beckons just beyond the front door. Hawke is the rough-and-tumble older brother Lee, and Dano is his lifelong favorite target, the younger and more civilized Austin.
The action takes place in the modest suburban Southern California home of Lee and Austin's mother (Marylouise Burke, who puts in an appearance late in the evening). What we see of the house, as designed by Mimi Lien, is the kitchen with stems of cherries dotting the wallpaper, and the adjoining pine-paneled alcove, whose defining features are a large picture window looking out onto the neighboring property, a variety of well-cared-for potted and hanging plants, and an assortment of inexpensive decorative statuary. Unimpressive, to be sure, but what does impress is how perfectly tidy everything is.
The neatly-groomed, bespectacled, and genteel Austin is temporarily ensconced there, housesitting while Mom is on vacation in Alaska. The quiet environment is what he needs while working on a screenplay he is trying to sell. When the decidedly scruffy, intimidating, and altogether unpredictable Lee shows up, it comes as an unwelcome surprise to Austin, who can only hope the visit will be a short one. Lee prides himself on being a freewheeling drifter who cadges a few bucks here and there by sneaking into homes and walking out with small appliances. That's why he's decided to pop in, so he can see what he can pick up in Mom's neighborhood before disappearing back into the desert.
As Lee and Austin circle, feint, and jab at one other, trying to handle his brother becomes an increasingly demanding challenge for Austin, who is also trying to convince a glad-handing but noncommittal Hollywood producer, Saul (Gary Wilmes), to finally greenlight his project. If we think of the brothers as a modern-day version of Cain and Abel, then you could also say the serpent has followed along as well, in the form of the garrulous Saul. Not content with stringing along Austin with promises of fame and fortune, Saul sets the stage for the play's major twist when he shows an interest in a vaguely-conceived storyline Lee throws at him.
This turn of events ups the rivalry ante tenfold. What follows is a rollicking descent into alcohol-fueled mayhem, the highlight of which involves a kitchen full of toasters set loose on a loaf of Wonder Bread. It is a near-iconic scene, the Mad Hatter's tea party but with beer and booze in place of tea and treacle. With the support of fight director Thomas Schall (here most appropriately credited as a "fight choreographer"), Hawke and Dano go at each other like a pair of frenzied jackals, reconfiguring the once spick and span home into a stand-in for a frat house after a particularly wild kegger. That, of course, is when Mom suddenly puts in an appearance, giving the wonderfully quirky actress Marylouise Burke her long-awaited turn in the spotlight. It is a perfect Instagram moment.
What is necessary in order for True West to work well on stage is to have the right chemistry between the actors playing Lee and Austin. That's where Hawke and Dano come in. They are ideally matched and totally believable as long-sparring siblings. As far as casting goes, it's not hard to imagine the effusive Hawke as the aggressive and erratic Lee, and Dano quite suits the image of Austin as the reticent intellectual we meet at the start. But as the play progresses and everything begins to crumble, that's when the two of them absolutely gleam, giving spot-on performances with perfect timing under James Macdonald's skillful direction. Together, they remind us clearly that Shepard's play is not just an oddball comedy; it is a primal and timeless tale.