Things fall apart in Sam Shepard’s True West. The simmering almost-two-hander about a pair of estranged brothers locked in competition over the sale of a screenplay to a Hollywood producer is a gradual, grinning descent towards chaos. It lurks and menaces, yapping comically just like one of the Southern California coyotes that prowl the suburb where the brothers are holed up in their mother’s tidy kitchen — until, like the coyote darting out of the shadows to maul unattended puppies, it goes for the kill. It’s funny and nasty, debauched yet dramatically laser-focussed. “I wanted to write a play about double nature,” said Shepard in 1980, “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 … 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.”
In James Macdonald’s rather polished revival of Shepard’s play, Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano stand on opposite sides of that devastating split, Dano as the screenwriter Austin — fastidious, diligent, domesticated—and Hawke as the older brother, Lee, a drifter and a thief who lives on cheap beer and cowboy-esque pipedreams and rhapsodizes with a twang about his wanderings in the desert. He’s gritty and grandiose, outwardly sloppy and inwardly sharp, and very psychologically dangerous. At a glance, he’s the more obviously meaty role — a chance to do some big, muscular Acting with a capital A — and Hawke is sinking his teeth right in. He’s a fantastic Lee, gleefully balancing threat and humor and hoisting the character up towards those great, skeptical, contradictory destructive life-forces in literature: buffoons with teeth, like Falstaff or Dostoevsky’s Fyodor Karamazov.
Hawke is lighting a fire (literally and figuratively) at the center of the play and clearly having a ball doing it. But on the other side of things, through some imperfect alchemy of actor, director, and character, Dano’s Austin can’t take the heat. He’s so recessive for so long that Lee has nothing much to push against. Shepard builds tension between the brothers scene by scene, but here, an Austin who bends, deflates, and dwindles so easily and so consistently starts to make the play feel repetitive rather than cumulative, a drone rather than a gradual ribcage-rattling crescendo. When Dano finally reaches Austin’s key aria — in which he quietly tells Lee the grim, pathetic story of their alcoholic father’s trip to Juarez to get all his teeth pulled by a backstreet dentist — he’s at last in his melancholy element. But the road to get there has been long and frustratingly flat.
Dano’s challenge is a tough one: The brothers are seeming opposites and Lee is clearly the flashier part while Austin’s the harder one. Plenty of hay has been made over the idea of the characters as two sides of a single personality, but while that kind of “symbolic metaphorical stuff” is interesting to talk about in coffee shops, it can be deadening to take it too literally in performance. True West isn’t Fight Club — though it’s easy to trace the lineage from one to the other — and the “double nature” that fascinated Shepard is not ultimately represented by Austin and Lee but rather inherent in both of them. And in all of us. Drain Austin of too much of his own ferocity, repressed though it initially might be, and the play loses dimension and urgency. Later in the story, when Lee has managed to steal the attention of Austin’s slick producer, Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes) with his own script pitch for a “real … true-to-life Western,” the siblings switch places: Now it’s Lee who sits at his brother’s typewriter, hunched and anxious, poking angrily at the keys and shouting at Austin — who, in his resentment and jealousy, has downed a bottle of whiskey — to keep it down so he can concentrate. Shepard has set up an inevitable turning of the tables, so inevitable that it can seem contrived unless it’s buoyed up by two equally fierce actors — by a Lee that contains a tense, insecure would-be artist and an Austin whose own ugly inner tumult and no-more-fucks-to-give recklessness were always bound to boil over.
In a sense, the first half of True West lets Lee throw his weight around, and the second half belongs to the freshly feralized Austin, who even goes on his own drunken burglary spree to prove that he’s up to his brother’s “job.” With two wild animals now released, mom’s kitchen doesn’t have a chance. As Austin merrily fills the house with stolen toasters, Lee, consumed with paralyzing writer’s block, lays into the typewriter with a golf club. The houseplants beloved by the boys’ mother (Marylouise Burke) wither and die, Lee turns one of them into a urinal, rejected script pages blaze in a metal bucket, and toast and booze and mess and mayhem reign.
That’s what happens on the page, at least. In Macdonald’s production, mayhem is aesthetically approximated, but it never really kicks us in the guts. Set designer Mimi Lien and lighting designer Jane Cox have framed the suburban kitchen inside a box of bright fluorescent light strips: Between scenes, the box glows harshly, blinding us to the transitions happening inside. It’s a popular technique and a clean one — too clean for the play. True West thrives on intimacy and grunge, on smelling the stale beer and the performers’ sweat, on creating a way for the actor playing Lee to really beat the ever-loving shit out of that typewriter. The question of authenticity — and the slippery line it walks with artifice — is at the heart of Shepard’s play: What makes a story true — facts or feeling? Which life is more real — the ordered, grounded, connected, responsible life, or the wild life, untethered from morality, sleepless and rootless and suffused with anarchic glamor? When are we most fully ourselves — when we keep it together or when we fall apart? Shepard’s brilliance is to answer both, both, both.
But up inside its jewel box, so neatly delineated and so separate from us, the mess this production makes is largely artificial, well designed but not dangerous. Hawke doesn’t hold back in his acting, but he does — just barely, but visibly — when he swings that golf club. Macdonald and his designers put the play’s pandemonium on display, as if in a meticulously constructed museum diorama. We can be intrigued or entertained staring into it, but we’re too removed to have our hearts heaved into our mouths.
True West is at the American Airlines Theatre through March 17.