Toxic masculinity may be a growing blight on society, but for spectacular proof that onstage, at least, it can also be vital entertainment, look no further than the sizzling Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” The play stars Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as two bruising, brawling brothers who tear into each other with a precision and gusto that can only be achieved by near (and sometimes dear) family members. Fortunately, the only victims of this poisonous sibling rivalry are the brothers themselves — along with a few inanimate innocent bystanders including a typewriter, a bag of golf clubs and (a little sad, this) their mother’s cherished houseplants.
“True West,” first staged off-Broadway in 1980, has proven to be among Shepard’s most enduring and popular plays. It’s also one of his very finest, and, almost without a doubt, his most purely entertaining. Those who saw the last Broadway incarnation, in 2000, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in twice-over tour de force performances (they alternated in the central roles) may be inclined to hold fast to their memories of that superb production. But that would be a mistake.
The new version, staged by the estimable British director James Macdonald, gives vivid proof that when the stars (figurative and literal) are properly aligned, a great play can still dig its way into your heart (and in this case scratch mercilessly at your funny bone at the same time) no matter how familiar it may be.
This production, at the American Airlines Theatre, does not attempt to replicate the novelty of that last version (echoed a few seasons ago when Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon traded the two leading female roles in “The Little Foxes”). Hawke and Dano stick to one brother apiece — and I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
Hawke, who has amassed a considerable body of theater work in addition to forging a varied film career, delivers his finest stage performance to date as the cynical, dissolute and gleefully disreputable Lee. He descends on his younger brother, the strait-laced conformist Austin (Dano), as Austin is patiently trying to seal a screenwriting deal from the cozy comfort of his mother’s kitchen in a Los Angeles suburb.
Needless to say – this is, after all, a Sam Shepard play – the impromptu reunion does not go well. While at first Austin timidly tries to parry his brother’s taunting verbal assaults and sweet, seething mockery of what Lee sees as a ludicrous profession, the atmosphere in the kitchen and adjoining dining nook quickly moves from tense to tautly antagonistic to, eventually, explosively (and hilariously) violent. Salt is poured generously in old wounds, new blows are administered with pinpoint emotional accuracy, and, by the play’s powerfully bruising ending, the brothers have simultaneously laid waste to their mother’s tidy kitchen and their own unexpectedly fragile identities.
Hawke’s Lee, prowling the kitchen like a caged cat — he lives isolated in the desert, and likes it that way — liberally sprays the room with veiled, or not-so-veiled insults, leaving a trail of crumpled beer cans behind him. But while Hawke is sensationally good at fleshing out the hostility and preening slovenliness that Lee revels in, his performance also reveals, even from the beginning, layers of emotional sediment. These layers indicate that beneath Lee’s blustering bravado he is not just isolated but lost: an ungrown child still yearning for the elusive satisfactions of adulthood, which seem to evaporate as he grasps at them like mirages in the desert. Hawke punctuates Lee’s tyrannical jousting with sudden, soft pauses of shiver-inducing sadness, suggesting the damaged soul that lurks underneath Lee’s grimy surfaces.
The play’s ingenious twist arrives with the advent of Saul Kimmer (a terrific, almost visibly oily Gary Wilmes), the Hollywood producer who has committed to getting Austin’s new screenplay (a love story, it is revealed, to sneers from Lee) onto the screen. But Lee, who makes his living, if such it can be called, burglarizing appliances, storms into the kitchen during Saul and Austin’s informal meeting, brandishing a purloined television. Before Austin can hustle Saul out the door, Lee has turned on the charm and managed to cajole the rather baffled Saul into a golf date the next morning. And by time the last ball has been sunk, Lee has either convinced or somehow blackmailed (it’s left unclear) Saul into committing to develop a movie from an idea Lee has cooked up – leaving Austin’s project in limbo.
This dismaying news all but unhinges his brother, and as Lee sits down at the typewriter – Hawke makes brilliantly funny his fuzzy concentration on hunting for and pecking at the keys – Austin slowly descends into a dazed, alcoholic fury. Here Dano comes into his own, his altar boy’s softly contoured face taking on a vicious leer as he now takes his turn prowling the kitchen, clutching a bottle and exuding malice and mockery, in a transformation that’s surreally entertaining.
“True West,” like Shepard’s finest works, operates on deeply stacked layers of emotion and meaning. Almost incidentally, it’s a sly sendup of the glib, shallow mechanics of Hollywood dealmaking. In the grim tensions that flare whenever Austin and Lee turn to the sore subject of their father, a ne’er-do-well on whom Lee seems to have patterned his misbegotten life, it turns to classic Shepard territory: the tangled legacies of abuse, neglect and subsumed love that are handed down like poisoned heirlooms from one generation to the next. And at perhaps its deepest level, as Lee and Austin later seem to blur together into one single identity, a man-child who yearns both for stability and freedom, the play bleeds into a mythic tale of the fundamental dissatisfactions that dog many lives, the tug of war between who we might be and who we are.
As “True West” rattles to its explosive conclusion, a brief pause in the boiling antagonism between the brothers arrives with the unexpected advent of their mother, played with dainty comic grace by the ever-wonderful Marylouise Burke. Just back from a cruise, she surveys with baffled but somehow unruffled eyes the wreckage of her kitchen, receives a mournful, desperate hug from Lee, and quietly picks her way out of the rubble, leaving her sons to enact final round of their drawn-out duel.
Macdonald’s production, powered by two actors in top form, peels away all the layers to leave the play’s flesh, blood and bones all brutally exposed. In the production’s stark final tableau, the actors are seen in black silhouette, facing each other with a tense animosity. But it’s really as if they are staring in a dark mirror in which they are desperately straining to discern the contours of their own faces.
“True West” opened on Jan. 24, 2019 at the American Airlines Theatre.
Creative: Written by Sam Shepard; Directed by James Macdonald; Scenic Design by Mimi Lien; Costume Design by Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design by Jane Cox; Sound Design by Bray Poor.
Producer: Roundabout Theatre Company.
Cast: Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke, Marylouise Burke, Gary Wilmes.