Showtime has brought some good theater to television, even if it’s often in the inexpensive, unimaginative form of videotaped versions of stage productions. Basically, if the production is good, and it’s fluidly, unobtrusively shot, such an effort can carry emotional weight, particularly because it allows audiences a view of unimpeded, continuous acting, something we rarely get on film. That was the case, for example, with the Brian Dennehy-led “Death of a Salesman.” Alas, Showtime’s latest offering, an Idaho staging of Sam Shepard’s “True West” starring Bruce Willis, is a poorly shot video of a weak production, giving us the worst of all worlds.
Willis co-founded Company of Fools in the Idaho town where he resides, and this production was taped in July 2001. Willis plays Lee, a hard-drinking loner and petty criminal who spends a lot of time in the Mojave Desert. He has returned to his mother’s California home to find his brother, Austin, in the house while their mom’s on vacation. Austin is the antithesis of Lee: a married, Ivy League-educated screenwriter. Before long, the two are at odds, as Lee hijacks Austin’s film project by convincing his producer that Lee’s “true-life” Western would be a blockbuster.
The 1981 play is among Shepard’s most accessible works. It’s a personal examination of the writer’s own inner conflict — both Austin and Lee are clear alter-egos for Shepard, and their battle is one of creativity vs. commercialism, authenticity vs. myth-making.
Unfortunately, none of this is really relevant to this production, which Willis directed for the stage and which sitcom director Gary Halvorson helmed for television. It’s at once way too literal and way too broad. Willis is well cast as Lee, but from beginning to end there’s something fake about the performance, and it isn’t due to the inherent strangeness of taping a stage show or to Halvorson’s awkward use of the cameras. From the vague, cheesy and unnecessary Texas accent to the contrived physical antics that emerge once the two brothers start to switch identities, Willis just seems to be working way too hard. Despite the effort, there’s not an ounce of convincing menace in Lee’s relationship with Austin, played by Idaho actor Chad Smith.
Smith’s overdone fake drunkenness and exaggerated facial expressions make Willis seem a master of restraint. But Smith is Olivier compared to Andrew Alburger, who plays producer Saul Kimmer. Danielle Kennedy is more tolerable as the mother, who returns home to find her kitchen looking like a war zone.
What’s especially odd about this weak project appearing on TV is that it’s the second time “True West” has aired in this fashion. The last one was more memorable. In 1984, a seminal production of the play, co-starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, appeared on “American Playhouse.” It was a production that launched the actors’ careers and vaulted the Steppenwolf Theater Co. to national prominence. One might be tempted to argue that the play itself has become dated and lost the ability to make an impact, but that would be belied by the success of a recent Broadway production that featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating in the leading roles.
There can be no excuses here. This is just a vanity project gone awry.