Shepard’s ‘True West’ May Not Be So True After All

I used to think this was a great play. Now I fear it's a great play wrapped in a gimmick.

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True West
Pal Dano and Ethan Hawke in "True West." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Sam Shepard’s True West was first produced at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in July 1980. It’s NYC premiere was at the Public Theater that December. A successful NYC transfer of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1982 revival followed and, in 2000, a Broadway revival starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating as the warring brothers, screenwriter Austin and housebreaker Lee. Now, True West is back on Broadway, at the American Airlines Theatre, with Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano.

About his acclaimed drama (or is it a comedy?), Shepard said:

I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.

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The playwright’s statement goes a long way towards explaining why I, and many others, have carried on for nearly 40 years, calling True West a true masterwork. His statement also helps to pinpoint why I’m now at odds with my once-high estimation of this extremely volatile two-act play.

It’s still, of course, an explosive piece in which Austin (Dano) housesits for his Mom (Mary Louise Burke) some 40 miles from Hollywood when Lee (Hawke) insinuates his sinister self into the scene. (Mimi Lien designed the comfortable setting.)

Austin is wrapping up a screenplay deal with movie producer Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes) when Lee returns, stolen TV in hand, and presents an improvised screenplay idea of his own. Later, Saul greenlights Lee’s project, dropping Austin’s.

For Austin, the supposed consolation is that he’ll write the screenplay. Lee’s fifth-rate outline is a thinly-veiled and therefore comic metaphor for the ever-competing Lee and Austin.

Lee is at the typewriter attempting to flesh out his outline, and Austin — determined not to write Lee’s screenplay for him — is so discombobulated that he decides he’ll be the one to sneak into neighborhood homes and steal stuff. By Act 2, he’s amassed any number of toasters. The brothers, in other words, have traded personalities. They both manage to let Mom’s plants die and to clobber the place like rock-band members trashing a hotel suite.

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This is where I now take issue with Shepard’s play. I understand why so many of us valued it in 1980: Shepard is going after Freudian psychology, with the id and superego fighting for control of the ego. Sitting through this production, however, I asked myself whether this is convincing in a “much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal”? If it isn’t, then the play is a gimmick — not an easily dismissible one, but one nonetheless.

Watching Hawke’s Lee (who takes command from the get-go) and Dano’s Austin (initially cowed and ineffectual) take on so many opposite qualities makes for alluring theater. You think of the actors, how they must salivate for such assignments. (True West is how Gary Sinise, as Austin, and John Malkovich, as Lee, put their names on the theater map.)

This combination of theme and roles once bowled me over, and still could. Hawke, bearded with a slight paunch, radiates menace even before he speaks. Directed suavely by James Macdonald, Lee’s potential threat only increases as he starts to taunt Austin; Hawke brings out Shepard’s calculating heavy with every off-handed yet measured syllable. Meantime, Dano gives the impression of a man evaporating. The Act 1 moments in which his Austin is intimidated by Lee lend his character enormous latitude, especially as Austin takes on Lee’s more extroverted profile. Dano radiates sheer joy as Austin collects all those toasters.

Wilmes plays the Hollywood macher properly, at one point wearing costume designer Kaye Voyce’s blue-and-white saddle-oxford golf shoes. With her usual grip on being habitually nonplussed, Burke is completely the surprised Mom. But Mom’s return from an Alaska visit of no specified purpose surprised me in that they revealed True West drawbacks that never bothered me before. Shepard means to expose the comic element, but it seems to me that anyone who’d walk into a home in such disarray would be more demonstrative than Mom is.

The holy mess that Austin and Lee make of the place is something that Shepard steals from himself. He’s indicating that the “true west” is a site where civilization possesses only the thinnest of veneers. But similar scenes do play out in at least two or three of his other works.

And whereas Shepard provides us with enough information on Lee, I realize now that Austin is underwritten. He’s at Mom’s, having left his family behind somewhere in northern California, but he barely thinks of them — certainly not when he decides he wants to live in the desert with Lee. Throughout True West, Lee never contacts his family; he leaves us an impression that there may be trouble up there. He also insists that the Kimmer deal is his last chance at making good. Why?

Perhaps the best way to leave my unexpected reassessment is to say that Shepard’s gimmick, and the challenge it affords two actors, is enough to delight and disturb any spectators who haven’t seen the play. For others, however, True West rings less true than it once did.