In the first Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, Ethan Hawke portrays Lee, a drifter, a drinker, and a thief who disrupts the life of his younger brother, Paul Dano’s Austin, an Ivy League educated writer and family man, in the kitchen of their mother’s home, where Austin is house-sitting and working on a screenplay. Halfway through the play, the brothers in effect switch identities – and descend into chaos, trashing their mother’s home and locking into unwinnable combat.
In the lobby of Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where the play is being presented, there are a series of posters that relate the stories of murderous brothers Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, and Lincoln and Booth from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. The implication is clear: Lee and Austin belong in a pantheon of mythic, resonant fraternal rivalries.
But it would have been more appropriate for Roundabout to have displayed posters featuring Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones; John Malkovich and Gary Sinise; Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid; Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. These are the pairs of actors who have portrayed the two brothers over the years. Whatever else True West is — yes, a theatrically explosive exploration of a fraught sibling relationship, but also a satire of Hollywood, and a black comedy — it is, above all, an opportunity for two showy performances.
One can understand the impulse to present it as something more significant — as a masterpiece — especially since it’s the first Broadway production of a Shepard play since his death in 2017. In a program note, Roundabout’s artistic director/CEO Todd Haimes claims the play “deconstructs” such basic concepts as brotherhood and integrity, and he promises that it “will leave you just as stunned, just as conflicted and just as electrified as it has kept me all these years.”
I’m afraid the production left me with just one of those three reactions: conflicted.
It’s worth noting what the playwright himself said about True West shortly after he wrote it: “I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided.”
There are plenty of clues in the script that Lee and Austin are two sides of the same person – or more precisely, each envies and resents (and contains a seed of) the other’s life. This is why Lee bothers to win over Austin’s Hollywood contact Saul (an oleaginous Gary Wilmes), pitching Saul a movie idea that Saul likes more than Austin’s. And that’s why Lee’s action provokes Austin to become a drinker, a thief and an aspiring drifter.
But, as talented as both actors are, it’s hard for me to see Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as brothers – far more difficult than Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, or Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid (who really are brothers.)
Hawke and Dano are both wonderful actors. In True West, Hawke, convincingly grungy, lights up the scenery – in one scene literally – with aplomb. Dano’s performance is initially more restrained, his role more challenging; he’s the one trying to stay mature and polite, until he loses it all. But Dano’s performance offers its pleasures as well. When his brother scoffs that Austin is too much a weakling even to be able to steal a toaster, Austin proves his mettle by stealing all the toasters in the neighborhood. His routine with toast and toasters is a comic highlight.
Yet it’s hard to feel that there’s a visceral connection between the two, or that the show of menace is real. It doesn’t help that Mimi Lien has for some reason designed a set that keeps us at a remove — placing a frame around the suburban Southern California home where the play takes place, as if presenting a picture. The frame is full of lights, which shine in our faces during the change of scenes.
So, no, I didn’t find this production of True West especially electrifying, or deconstructing. But sometimes, a little entertainment is enough.
True West is on stage at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater (227 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, N.Y., 10036) through March 17, 2019. Tickets and details
True West. Written by Sam Shepard; Directed by James Macdonald. Set design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Jane Fox, sound design by Bray Poor. Featuring Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Marylouise Burke and Gary Wilmes. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell