A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
True West

Don’t miss the opportunity to see a brilliant revival of an American stage classic, Sam Shepard’s “True West”  at Circle in the Square. “True West” is one of  Shepard’s best plays, along with his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child.” In both works, he is treating the dysfunctional American family who mirror larger issues in society: discontent, conformity, rebellion, and the power of myth.  It is skillfully directed by British Matthew Warchus and acted to the hilt (but never over it)  by  Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly as the brothers.

The action begins in the neat California kitchen of their mother’s house, tended by screenwriter Austin, while she is vacationing  in Alaska, and visited unexpectedly by Lee, a vagrant and a thief. Their father, a penniless drifter like Lee, lives in the desert, while their mother, like Austin, maintains her tidy house.  Proceeding from politeness to mayhem in the course of thirty-six hours, the brothers reverse the stereotypical roles in which they appear as the play opens.  Austin, the older brother, is a college graduate and  family man, a successful writer completing a screenplay he will soon be showing to a Hollywood producer.  Neatly dressed, he impresses as one concerned for his sibling, offering him money and food and inviting him to stay at his own home.  With a resentment that is deep-seated and long-burning, unkempt Lee rejects his brother’s offers with contempt.  If his brother can write a screenplay, says Lee, so can he, and he narrates an outrageous treatment of the myth of the “true” West.

Inexplicably, Lee’s plot outline is taken seriously by the smarmy Hollywood producer who drops by to confer with Austin over his screenplay.  Early the next day the drifter and the producer play golf and lunch together. Rather than just fantasizing about living a life completely different from one’s own, the brothers actually do so.  The originally stable writer becomes more and more frantic as his own script is rejected in favor of his brother’s. To prove he can enact Lee’s role as Lee has assumed his, Austin breaks into neighbors’ houses and steals a number of toasters (in which thieving Lee specializes). Lee in the meantime has taken a turn at the typewriter; failing to operate it, he destroys it with his golf club.  On the phone to Information, Lee empties all the drawers onto the floor as he searches for a pencil to record the number of a girlfriend who may or may not live in Bakersfield.   Thwarted, he rips the phone from the wall. While the physical brother reverts to type, the mental Austin decides to give up his sterile life and go to the desert with Lee: “There’s nothing real down here, Lee!  Least of all me!”

They strike a bargain.  Lee will take his brother to the desert if he in turn will write down Lee’s script exactly as he dictates it:  “You write me up this screenplay thing just like I tell ya’. I mean you can use all yer usual tricks and stuff.  Yer fancy language.  Yer artistic hocus pocus.  But ya’ gotta write everything like I say.”

As they argue over the script and its choice of words, the sibling rivalry of the past erupts into physical blows in the present.  Then, into the ravaged kitchen, with its beer bottles, dangling phone, dead plants, trash, stolen tv and toasters, enters their mother, suitcase in hand.   The men argue again as Lee tries to renege on their trip to the desert, and finally they come to blows.  Their mother, who accepts Lee’s taking possession of her antique china and silver with the same complacency with which she views her kitchen, suggests that they fight outside.  You feel that this is a replay of twenty years earlier when the two brothers as youngsters grappled on the floor: “You boys shouldn’t fight in the house.  Go outside and fight,” she would have said, caring more about her neat house than about their relationship.  It seems that neither the house nor the desert will provide comfort for any of the family, even the mother, who decides to go to a motel.

The action is as humorous as it is perceptive.  One of the most amusing anecdotes is Lee’s account of how their father, losing a tooth daily, persuaded the Government to give him money for a false set and then lost these in a doggie bag from a Chinese restaurant.  Under the humor it is clear that the old man, like his wife and children, is a survivor.

As Austin, Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent in what may be the more difficult role, as he undergoes the greater change, ending by almost murdering his brother, but  John C. Reilly is equally impressive, for he must convince us that besides his physicality, there is sensitivity in Lee, who carries the larger shoulder chip.  For good measure, these talented actors then alternate their roles at different performances.  Known heretofore primarily as movie actors, both may be seen in the current film “Magnolia.”

For these sibling rivals, their struggle reaches an impasse as it probably always has, a stalemate at the present moment:  “The figures of the brothers now appear to be caught in a vast desert-like landscape, they are very still but watchful for the next move. . . .”  The last sound, as was the first, is that of the coyote and the crickets, the menace and the comforting in a balance that echoes in the play and in the world.