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Two West

May 3, 2006, 12:00 am
By
A pair of brothers goes south in True West.


Sam Shepard's True West, on the boards courtesy of Ironweed Productions, tosses myths of The West around like rusted beer cans. Each myth is held to the light, seen as a flimsy, sordid falsehood ***image1***and discarded. This deconstruction emerges through the gradual and darkly comic unraveling of two brothers, Austin and Lee, in the kitchen of their mother's suburban Los Angeles home. Austin stands for everything his brother Lee is not: Ivy League educated, a screenwriter peddling a "love story," married with children (his family lives "up north") and somewhat at ease with Hollywood's idea of the American Dream. Lee appears at first as the archetypal contemporary Western antihero, a hustler and petty thief who swills Bud for breakfast, "doesn't sleep" and emanates resentment and suspicion toward anything that hints of pretense or comfort.

Stretching deeper into the dynamic of Shepard's script, Scott Harrison and Eric Kaiser reverse roles after every two performances. Attending both versions of this reverse casting, a highly recommended and entertaining approach, has the effect of highlighting the play's own arc of reversal, wherein Lee suddenly becomes a screenwriter and Austin tries to embrace his own inner bad boy. This shift of personae is difficult, partly because Shepard has written the script with such broadly comic strokes that it would be tempting to bypass nuance entirely. But Harrison and Kaiser pull it off, each performer capturing highly distinct versions of Austin/Lee, while honoring the double reversal that gives the play its comic energy.

Kaiser's Lee goes for a rangy, loose-limbed, rattlesnake-like magnetism. The menace behind Lee's endless hustling and his acidulous resentment of Austin runs tense and knifelike just beneath a greasy coat of sleaze. Harrison takes a different tack on Lee, evoking more bombast that barely masks unlimited fear, inadequacy and frustration. Kaiser and Harrison's Lees mine two veins of the same idea-whether it's the slippery, wily sociopath or the sullen, swaggering, bullshitting blowhard. Somehow, as convincing as their antiheroes are, their approaches to straight man Austin also get to the character's heart. Kaiser goes for high-strung, skittish and tentative, with something undefined yet raw right beneath Mr. Nice Guy. Harrison's Austin is more milquetoast, hinting at that quiet neighbor who keeps to himself and ends up surprising everyone by murdering his family.

The reverse casting is a testament to Kaiser and Harrison's focus and discipline. Ably directed by Kent Kirkpatrick, the overall production is excellent as well, with a delightfully cheesy and claustrophobic, dollhouse-like kitchen set that creates the perfect backdrop for the macho shenanigans of the brothers. Aaron Leventman as Hollywood agent Saul Kimmer and Patricia McKay, in a brief, disturbing and very ***image2***strange appearance as Austin and Lee's mother, provide a bit of relief from the unrelenting gamesmanship of the brothers.

Lee's screenplay idea is to tell a "true life" contemporary Western. The brothers collaborate in fits and starts in Act 2, at one point stuck on a line where the two cowboys in Lee's story confront each other. One cowboy says, "You were a fool to follow me out here. I know this prairie like the back of my hand." Too clich├ęd a phrase, the brothers decide; "I am on intimate terms with this prairie," is more "original." Their loss of perspective becomes even more clear, as does the hollowness of the entire macho myth of the West, when the truest story they have at hand is that of their destitute alcoholic father and the loss of not only his real teeth but also his false teeth. When their mother unexpectedly returns, the two brothers deflate, regressing to sullen, violent parodies of manhood, exposed: All dressed down with no West left to take them.

 

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