A mere 30 years or so after joining the front rank of American playwrights, Sam Shepard looks to have his first Broadway hit courtesy of Matthew Warchus’ blistering new revival of “True West.”
Make that Broadway hits, plural. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, actors who’ve garnered acclaim in indie films — they’ve both appeared in all three of Paul Thomas Anderson’s — take their double act a step further here. They’re alternating in the play’s leading roles, taking turns playing each of Shepard’s combative siblings in his corrosive 1980 comedy. Broadway is thus actually hosting two new productions of “True West,” with distinctly different temperatures, even if the enthusiastic (and young!) audiences at the Circle in the Square seemed equally excited by both versions.
Although it has the air of a headline-grabbing acting stunt, this conceit, which Warchus also used in his 1994 production of the play for London’s Donmar Warehouse, is a stylistic riff on classic Shepard themes: the insecurity of identity and the rootlessness of the self. Shepard’s Austin and Lee, the straight-arrow screenwriter and the beer-swilling bottom feeder, respectively, may spar with the ferocity that only brothers can bring to the field of battle, but they’re also attracted by the allure of each other’s life.
In the course of a few sodden days spent in their mother’s Southern California kitchen, the upstanding family man Austin goes to seed with a giddy recklessness that’s matched by the zeal fueling Lee’s desperate grab at the good life. By the play’s end they’ve merged into a single, self-destructive entity, a mad dog chasing its own tail.
It’s not altogether surprising that a writer of Shepard’s stature has only made it to Broadway once before, in the short-lived 1996 production of “Buried Child.” His plays are strange, mangy things, full of loose ends, flights of rhetorical fancy and elusive symbolism. They’re willfully grotesque, and anything but “well-made” in the manner of the leather-bound classic revivals that Broadway usually welcomes.
“True West” is no exception — its structure is languid and elliptical, its mysteries are many. Nevertheless, it may be Shepard’s most accessible play. It’s simply scaldingly funny, and firmly grounded in a recognizable time and place, not to mention the primal territory of family dysfunction. And Shepard’s jiggers of absurdity and nihilism come in naturalistic flavors here — the enervating monotony of crickets and lawn sprinklers, vividly evoked by Jim van Bergen’s excellent sound design, and a memorable pileup of that most humble of kitchen appliances, the toaster.
The great strength of Warchus’ production is its sensitivity to the play’s ragged mixture of styles and tones. It’s vitally comic, staged and spoken with sly wit and feverish slapstick grace, but Warchus and his actors are also attuned to its anguished silences, moments when only the crickets chirp — nothing seems to be happening, and yet everything is. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, moving from excessively murky to blindingly bright, lends a contrasting edge of theatricality to Rob Howell’s studiously realistic kitchen set.
Are both versions on offer equally compelling? Not really — I’d confidently give the upper hand to Hoffman as the junkyard dog Lee and Reilly as mama’s boy Austin. But that may simply be because I saw this version first, and it made an indelible impression that subsequent exposure to the other had trouble erasing.
As Lee, Hoffman has a permanent sun-squint and a paunch that gives a performance of its own. He’s riotously funny in the play’s late scenes, as Lee struggles miserably with the screenwriting assignment he’s unaccountably snatched from Austin’s grasp. Peering suspiciously at the typewriter, one leg hoisted onto a chair for extra leverage, he picks gingerly at the keys, one at a time, watching the machine’s workings with fear and awe, like a barbarian facing an unknown idol.
But his Lee is also infused with the slow-burning menace of a schoolyard bully dogging the hated teacher’s pet, and a plaintive sort of pathos, too. When he’s dictating to Austin the chase scene from his screenplay — “the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s chased doesn’t know where he’s going” — Hoffman’s mournful drawl captures all Shepard’s sad layers of meaning.
Reilly, meanwhile, seems most naturally to inhabit the good-natured, buttoned-down Austin. His jolly, aw-shucks voice perfectly suits Austin’s status as the kid who always played by the rules, and he naturally exudes a juvenile enthusiasm that’s marvelously right for the scene in which Austin gleefully produces a loaf of toast from the fleet of appliances he’s stolen from neighborhood houses, trying to prove his mettle as an outlaw. This loping boyishness also lends an apt tenderness to his admiration for his brother’s unfettered life, unleashed by liquor and his humiliation by movie producer Saul Kimmel (Robert LuPone, in white patent leather shoes and matching smile), who pulls the rug out from under Austin’s bourgeois security.
Playing the opposite roles, both actors seem a little less colorful. Reilly’s Lee even looks neater than Hoffman’s, and lacks his slow-burning edge, while Hoffman can’t quite match the endearing goofiness that so appealingly characterizes Reilly’s Austin. The laughs are sure but sparser, the emotional tensions more subdued. The contrasts that lend the play much of its humor are less sharp overall. But even this slightly lesser of two “True Wests” is welcome on Broadway, where, at age 20, it is the only “new” American play on the boards right now. (Its storied Gotham history includes a famous misfire at the Public Theater in 1980 and a smash revival in 1982 starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.)
That’s not the only odd irony at work here. It’s not by chance that “True West” is set on the fringes of Hollywood. Among other things, Shepard’s play is a mordant meditation on the power of myths to warp lives. Whether they’re manufactured by Hollywood or our own restless souls, Shepard suggests, we’re always chasing some dream or other, and it’s always disappearing over the horizon. How ironic, then, that it’s the fresh-minted Hollywood allure of its two stars that’s helping to fill the house with laughter at the Circle in the Square.