Of all of the many plays to come forth from the prolific and talented playwright Sam Shepard, it’s hardly surprising that "True West" remains his most popular. This kitchen-sink psychodrama has attracted some of the finest theater actors around, including John Malkovich and Gary Sinese (both unknowns when they originated their roles), Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bruce Willis, among many others.
It’s no wonder: The main roles of two brothers watching (eventually nearly destroying) their mother’s house in an unfashionable part of Los Angeles are sharply etched portraits of two men who couldn’t be more different, yet, once they’ve stripped away the layers, couldn’t be more alike.
In the York Shakespeare revival, playing through June 23, James Sayess as Lee, a drifter, petty thief and near-sociopath; and Patrick Terry as Austin, his wimpish, Ivy League-educated struggling screenwriter brother, have no physical or spiritual resemblance.
The director, Seth Duerr, errs badly in having Lee physically assault Austin early and not infrequently. The hold someone like Lee has over an Austin is the threat of physical violence; once he makes good on those threats, it’s hard to believe that Austin would remain under the same roof, even if he promised Mom to housesit while she takes a trip to Alaska.
The claustrophobic, menacing atmosphere of the two brothers is only heightened when Lee hijacks Austin’s meeting with a Hollywood producer to propose a game of golf (that Austin can’t golf is only the beginning of his lack of his real-life skills). What really sets Austin off, however, is the producer’s enthusiastic response to Lee’s story pitch.
That Austin can’t see any merit in a story about two men chasing each other through the vast expanses of the American West becomes a neat metaphor for his inability to experience the real world. The switch in roles between the two siblings has been a plot staple for every writer from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, but Shepard gives it a contemporary twist, with plenty of commotion and violence. And toast. Lots and lots of toast.
The York’s press release promises that "you’ll be terrifyingly close to the action," which, given the small space, is true. The literal intimacy nearly puts the audience inside the kitchen where all of the action takes place.
If Sayess and Terry don’t provide nuanced portrayals of their complex characters, never having seen a Shepard play before, I still walked away with an understanding of why many consider him the most talented American playwright of his generation.
"True West" runs through June 23 at Theatre 54@ Shelter Studios, 244 W. 54th St. between Broadway & Eighth Avenue. For info or tickets visit www.theatermania.com/off-broadway/shows/true-west_192237/