By: Isa Goldberg
February 14, 2019: Riding into the sunset, that’s the way all true cowboy movies end, isn’t it? At least, Sam Shepard seems to have thought so. His popularly revived, True West, currently at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre drives a classic Hollywood chase scene, to a heightened level of dark comedy.
Riding in on his metaphysical saddle, Ethan Hawke plays Lee, the ferial son, living like a real man, out in the desert. It is an incredible stage role for this actor, and he’s thriving in it. Grossly uncouth – both verbally, and physically – he shows up at their mother’s LA home, where his younger brother Austin is holed up, working on his film script. As played by Paul Dano, he’s reflective, and normal, in a nerdy middle-class kind of way.
When a third character, Austin’s Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes) arrives, Lee usurps their negotiations, selling Saul on his own movie. The triangulation, and competition that occur move the action to an absurd new level. Driven by their sibling rivalry, the 2 flip. Lee becomes the up-and-coming filmmaker, while Austin turns into a sociopath, stealing toasters from the neighbors to prove himself, and his capacity to menace.
It’s a slapstick role reversal, set in the natural homeland of all true TV sitcoms. In fact, in the last Broadway revival, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Rilley, the actors literally switched roles from one performance to the next.
Here, Director John Macdonald mines the metatheatrical nature of the play. Lee’s movie about cowboys who run out of gas, jump on their horses, and escape to the desert, is pretty much the way things work out for these 2 brothers.
Jane Cox’s lighting evokes the romanticism of the desert at sunset, and Mimi Lien’s set design gives us a look at LA domestic life. The family home, fashioned in middle American style, projects a sense of peacefulness that transforms into strangely embattled terrain. Cloaked in stereotypical wardrobe by Kaye Voyce, Lee looks like he wreaks, in his dirty desert rags, while Austin is squeaky clean.
As the deal maker who breaks them both, Wilmes is predictably Mephistophelian, albeit in casual disguise. In a story heading to tragedy – these 2 really want to kill each other – their mother (Marylouise Burke) arrives only to find herself in the midst of utter estrangement. Perhaps, she is the real grave digger here.
Shepard delivers the raw goods for a tale about man, in his natural setting. Macdonald elevates the regionality of the piece; this is really La La Land, after all. Still, the murderous playpen reality that Hawke and Danes create, blends the physical and psychological humor that give this production a hysterical ring of truth.
True West ****
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu—Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3 pm (check with theater for early curtain times). $59—$169. Running time: two hours including intermission. (212) 719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org. January 24th- March 17, 2019
Photography: Joan Marcus