As Sam Shepard’s True West brothers grim, Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano dig deep into the loamy earth of that macho post-hippie neo-cowboy near-masterpiece, mucking about the desert-edge-of-suburbia drama and surviving (we assume) to face another tequila sunrise. Shepard’s 1980 near-Pulitzer elegy for an authentically brutal frontier that’s faded into a brutally make-believe dreamland might not carry the same are we not real men urgency of the panicky sensitive-male era in which the playwright first mourned his mythologized West, but its apparent appeal for a certain type of meat-seeking actor persists.
All of which is to say, Hawke and Dano are well-suited in both temperament and talent for the Roundabout’s Broadway revival of Shepard’s once-shocking blast of new wave absurdism, opening tonight at the American Airlines Theatre. Directed by James Macdonald, True West fights its battles on a homey (but ever so trashable) two-room set, no wall dividing the ersatz writing room – all Hemingway butch with typewriter, booze, wood panel and golf clubs, abutting a kitchen that couldn’t be more grandmotherly – tacky keepsake dishes displayed against stemmed-cherry print wallpaper. No physical barrier – no cement wall, no steel slats – separates the two sides of this home turf, but the stomping ground is as bifurcated as any domino tile. Expect transgressions.
Indeed, divisions are key to this play, as the production makes clear. Brother versus brother, one embracing the surface civilization of Hollywood, the other thrilled by the coyote-eat-Fido brutality of the desert’s fringes. And just as there is no barrier separating these rooms, there is no solid divide between one brother’s nature and the other’s. You could say they’re almost one and the same.
Shepard kept his plot simple: Younger brother Austin (Dano, There Will Be Blood, Escape at Dannemora), a struggling screenwriter, has temporarily left wife and family behind to house-sit his aging (and vacationing) mom’s Southern California home. His intention to focus on finishing a make-or-break script is thwarted with the arrival of his estranged older brother Lee (Hawke), an unkempt and menacing petty thief looking for shelter after spending who knows how much time in the desert.
Oh, and Lee has an idea for a script, too. When Austin’s potential producer Saul (Gary Wilmes, TV’s Billions, Broadway’s Chinglish) shows up, Lee wastes no time pitching his idea for a movie – a Western, of course – and soon enough has charmed (or maybe something scarier) his way into a Hollywood deal that has the added appeal of putting the kibosh on little brother’s dreams.
As our Cain and Abel – which is which shifts moment to moment – set about collaborating on Lee’s lousy idea, they argue, drink, threaten, drink, burgle, drink, reveal history and hopes while destroying mom’s house bric-a-brac by bric-a-brac.
Shepard’s plan here – schematic but effective – was to gradually strip away whatever guise each brother has spent a lifetime constructing, unleashing the coyotes. Meek, brainy, faux-civilized Austin reveals himself no less a cutthroat than violent, impulsive, pretend-authentic Lee, who proves himself more adept at playing Hollywood games than kid brother ever imagined.
Whether Shepard’s chief insight holds up is an open question even this earnest production doesn’t quite answer. Hollywood treachery and production-deal-backstabbery once made a fitting metaphor for the untamed West’s kill-or-be-killed brutality (or maybe it was vice-versa), but after Weinstein, who needs metaphors? Nothing surprises.
Still, there’s no denying the appeal True West still commands, perhaps especially for actors – a current West End production stars Johnny Flynn and Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harrington in the Lee-Austin roles, the two adding their names to an alumni roster that includes Peter Coyote, Tommy Lee Jones, Peter Boyle, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Jim Belushi, Gary Cole, Tim Matheson, Erik Estrada, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. If those actors have anything in common besides this entry on their resumes, it’s a certain take-no-prisoners, indebted-to-The-Method approach.
Dano, so excellent in roles both subdued (check him out in the underrated 2010 Western Meek’s Cutoff) and showboating (“Get out of here, ghost!”), is entirely credible here, whether fretting over mom’s houseplants or unleashing his inner beast. He doesn’t do drunk very well – he shows his cups mostly in self-conscious little jigs that seem more actorly than lushy, but that’s a quibble. Seeing him onstage is treat.
Hawke, of course, lives for this type of juicy role, playing dirty in more ways than one. He threatens, mocks, wheedles and preens, a triumphant and oft-exposed beer belly practically deserving a credit of its own. So maybe his transformation from fearsome to beggarly is a tad brisk, but just try to look away.
Wilmes, as the Hollywood producer, parcels out his character’s motivations with great care (if you don’t already know what does or doesn’t happen to Saul, Wilmes won’t let on until just the right moment).
And as Mom, Marylouise Burke (TV’s The Affair, Broadway’s Into the Woods) is a hoot, surrendering entirely to the absurdity that Shepard hands her. Arriving late in the play but early to her sons, Burke’s baffled, horrified mother surveys the mess that’s been made of her once tidy home, stunned at the damage her men – all men – do.
“You’ll have to stop fighting in the house,” she says, scolding these unruly, suddenly cowed boys. “There’s plenty of room outside to fight. You’ve got the whole outdoors to fight in.” Indeed they do, and so they will.