Sam Shepard’s obituary in the New York Times describes his plays as hallucinatory, though his Pulitzer Prize finalist, True West, is relatively close to naturalistic. Critics often count it as part of Shepard’s tragic Family Trio, even though it has plenty of opportunities for comedy. Rep Stage leans into the comedic and the bizarre, giving the audience a surprisingly light take on the family tragedy.
Shepard gives us two estranged brothers crashing at their mother’s place in 1980s southern California while she is vacationing in Alaska. Austin (Daniel Corey) is an uptight screenwriter, desperate for a TV deal to support his family back home in Maine. Lee (Tim Getman) is a deranged, drunken thief, fresh from a few months living alone in the desert and madly jealous of Austin’s conventional success.
Austin is a milquetoast, a hardworking nebish who certainly resembles any number of screenwriters Shepard knew in Hollywood. That is, until Lee brings his world crashing down around him.
Lee is a remarkable character, balled fists, thin skinned, and a tremendous inferiority complex. He’s larger than life, and seems to get away with breaking the rules well beyond what the more realistic Austin could ever imagine. He is a confirmed thief with no fear of jail. He survived three months in the dessert alone and shows up in southern California ready and able to dominate a movie producer at golf. “Now where did a guy like you learn to play golf like that,” Saul Kimmer (James Whalen) says. We wonder that as well.
Austin seems completely weak while Lee can bully his way into getting anything he wants. The first half of the play reads like a resurgence of an abusive childhood dynamic, as Lee reasserts the old family dynamic Austin thought he had escaped.
This is clearer in the 1982 production directed by Gary Sinise, starring Sinise and John Malkovich as Austin and Lee respectively, which was filmed for PBS in 1984. Malkovich’s Lee is understated and meandering, clearly lost deep in his own insecurities. This production’s director, Vincent M. Lancisi, opts for a more clownish Lee. Getman’s Lee explodes over and over in the very first scene and risks dulling the audience’s senses for the rest of the show. When the scene ends with Lee ominously announcing, “I never sleep,” the abrupt change in mood from hot-headed clown to surreal threat is jarring.
Shepard pulls the audience in with a fascinating inversion of the characters. Thanks to Lee’s unlikely golf skills, he gambles his way into getting the deal from Saul that Austin was working so hard for. That puts Lee behind the typewriter and Austin drunkenly pushing Lee’s buttons for attention while dreaming of running away to the dessert. As the two brothers try to steal each other’s lives, it’s Austin who is, by far, the most transformed, a compliment to Corey’s range. When the play starts, they don’t speak alike, move alike, or think at all alike. But, as Austin says, “We all sound alike when we’re sloshed.” Austin goes vindictive, unhinged, and ultimately obsessive, just like Lee. Austin puttering about making two loaves of toast while his brother is rampaging is an amusing though repetitive gag.
closes May 13, 2018
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James Whalen plays Saul exactly as expected for a 1980s movie producer. Saul is decked out in gaudy jewelry, easy to tempt with golf and gambling, and quick with lavish albeit hollow praise.
Mom (Valerie Lash) is a trickier puzzle. She is surprisingly ineffectual, showing up to tut-tut the boys and be mostly ignored. She also has a few strange moments of senility as she believes the long-dead Picasso is visiting the local art museum. It’s a plot hook that gets briefly laughed at but never explored, inviting a comparison to the infamously forgotten breast cancer subplot in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
Perhaps the funniest joke all night was when a stagehand carefully placed a half dozen beer cans around the dining room table and then poured another dozen onto the floor without a thought. Maybe the worst was a tie between Lee rinsing his genitals with beer for a quick laugh when his mom walks in behind him and a turn for undeniable slapstick during the climatic brawl between the brothers. But I was left longing for a production that resisted the frequent temptation of bathos.
True West by Sam Shepard. Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi. Performed by Tim Getman, Daniel Corey, James Whalen, and Valerie Lash. Set design by Nathaniel Sinnott. Lighting design by Joseph Walls. Sound design by William D/Eugenio. Costume design by Jessica Welch. Properties design by Mollie Singer. Stage managed by Julie DeBakey Smith. Assistant stage managed by Brittany Federici. Produced by Rep Stage. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.