True West Returns
What we expect of Sam Shepard, erstwhile bad boy rock 'n' roll wordsmith, has changed in fascinating ways since his first play, Cowboys, was produced by Theatre Genesis in 1963. For many years he was an exclusively downtown phenomenon, with a genius for plays that didn't recall any his fans had seen before, plays such as Action and Cowboy Mouth with gripping stage images and explosive, immediate, paradoxical verbal effusions that didn't so much eschew conventional structure as behave as though no one had ever heard of it. You could tell in some works, such as Angel City, Melodrama Play and Curse of the Starving Class, that he'd been looking at past drama and film, but he never came off as a serious student, and that appealed to his early, post-Beat audience.
Strange as it may seem for a critic to regret ideas or artistic maturity, there is indeed a loss in this later work?a loss that the country's army of second-rate critics, who reflexively protect and defend the dominant bourgeois dramatic tradition, invariably treat as a gain. Shepard remains one of our finest playwrights, but the truth is, he became less interesting, less challenging and surprising, when he shifted his emphasis from mythopoesis to mythic reference, from acts of remembering to ruminations about memory, from effortless active metaphors to metaphorical schema, from acts of lying to lies of the mind.
True West is my favorite play of this period, despite its obvious commercial ambitions, largely because it's fundamentally about what I've been discussing. I'm happy to see it on Broadway in a pretty good production. Anyone who appreciates dramatic efficiency couldn't help but admire the tightly conceived ambiguities in this allegory of two brothers, one a grizzled desert rat, the other a clean-cut screenwriter, who obviously represent two sides of the author himself.
The play is a bit too irrelevantly dependent for my taste on what might be called firecracker effects, like the gradual trashing of the kitchen set and the sudden appearance of multiple toasters. It's so clear about the terms of the fraternal battle it depicts, though, and so confidently grounded in its simple, gritty humor, that it takes on an open, confessional, even regretful quality that compensates for its firecrackers, its schematism and its slow spots. True West isn't merely about a struggle between two mythic images of American maleness. It's about the ghosts of those images, the lack of credible myth in the fragmented and multifarious modern world, and the yearning for it that sometimes becomes itself a sort of new myth. Shepard starts with an impasse in himself?each brother longs for the other's circumstances?and ends in broad cultural compassion. As you know, the novelty of Matthew Warchus' production at Circle in the Square is that the actors playing the brothers alternate roles. This is a terrific idea in principle, with great potential to open up fresh subtleties in the characters and avoid cliches of oversimplified opposition. The problem at the performance I saw was that one of the actors plainly outclassed the other, eliminating all hope of the fascinating balance that (I assume) was supposed to make me want to go back and see the other version.
Pudgy, strawberry-blond Philip Seymour Hoffman played the beer-swollen frontiersman Lee and dark, brooding John C. Reilly played the college-educated daddy Austin the night I attended?not the casting that seemed to me natural beforehand. Hoffman nevertheless stole the evening. I admit I was unsure of this actor's depth and technical abilities after seeing him sneer and smarm his way through Defying Gravity and Shopping and Fucking, but this performance, along with his others in Happiness, Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley, have convinced me he deserves the accolades he's been getting lately. In some scenes, his Lee reduces Reilly's Austin to the status of a bumbling straight man.
As the asocial "bad guy," Lee is the sexier role; he's the character most likely to do odd, surprising things and thus win easy applause through antics unrelated to an actor's skill: smashing a typewriter, pouring beer on himself, ripping a phone out of the wall. Hoffman's spin on this is that he isn't at all sexy, and the intensity of his performance comes from the burden of inventiveness this places on him. His speech is slurred like a drunk's, except in the moments when he flashes with lucidity, startling everyone. His smallest, most seemingly insignificant gestures are quirky and visually arresting?maneuvering himself onto the kitchen counter with no hands so he needn't put his beer can down, for instance, or carefully placing (not tossing) a piece of toast on the floor before furiously grinding it into the rug with his heel. The most memorable aspect of Reilly's Austin, by contrast, is the bright sponge he uses to wipe up compulsively after his brother. He's perfectly believable in the role, but he has few edges and his performance grows monotonous due to his extremely narrow vocal range (he has almost no upper register, and more than half of this play entails yelling).
The set by Rob Howell?a realistic suburban kitchen with a plastic-paneled ceiling on a deep, angled thrust stage?is attractive and serviceable, within the limitations of Circle in the Square's awful sight-line problems. Robert LuPone, dressed in a powder-blue suit, Hawaiian shirt and white shoes, is splendidly slimy as the gladhanding movie producer Saul Kimmer. Celia Weston is disappointing as the brothers' mother, a small but comically crucial walk-on in the last scene that Warchus seems to have deemed unimportant (Weston is inexplicably affectless and looks no older than her sons). The direction is spotty in other ways as well: grating electric-guitar segues between the scenes seem gratuitous, and at nearly two intermissionless hours, the show also drags at times. The segues are minor irritants, though, and for me the dragginess may have to do with the fact that the play's physical gags always struck me as a bit unorganic. All in all, this is a creditable production (this version of it, at any rate) with a serious shot at mass appeal.
Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway (50th St.), 239-6200, through June 4.
If Shepard is a chief repository of the media-age American dream that genius is exclusively the stuff of youthful impulsiveness and recklessness, then the Englishman Harley Granville Barker is surely the tonic to jolt us back into recognition that adulthood follows youth and the much more typical pattern among American playwrights is arrested adolescence and artistic stagnation (as noted last week with Nicky Silver). What a good time I had discovering Waste, a bona fide grownup play from 1906 that I didn't know?indeed, it seems to have been largely forgotten in Britain and America for more than half a century?a work as politically fresh and intellectually entertaining as much of Shaw (who was Barker's friend, collaborator and mentor).
The story of an idealistic and brilliantly gifted politician whose life is ruined after he has an affair with a married woman, Waste was banned by Lord Chamberlain, the British censor, for 30 years. The reasons for that remind us how little hypocrisies have changed in 100 years. Barker not only writes frankly and compassionately about sex, unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion; he also depicts the cynical decisionmaking of very realistic political powerbrokers with a bone-chilling precision capable of infuriating even today. The work has the disquisitory flair of Shaw (though not the wit) and an Ibsenesque predilection for laying bare the traps of social convention that speed the downfall of certain would-be heroes. It doesn't settle for being either a domestic tragedy or a political allegory, but repeatedly raises the specter of religion to push its moral themes toward some new synthesis of old conventions.
Byron Jennings is excellent as Henry Trebell, the lead in this Theater for a New Audience production directed by Barlett Sher. Trebell is an independent politician who risks an alliance with the Conservative Party because he sees an historic opportunity to push through his dream legislation: disestablishing the Church of England and using the money for education. This complex policy ambition is the illuminating background for his private social stupidity, and Jennings deftly manages to keep both aspects eminently and movingly plausible. Kristin Flanders, who plays his lover Amy O'Connell, had me worried early on because, with her overdone archness and snottiness, she never convinced me she had the composure and charm to attract such a self-possessed man. Once her character is in the throes of trouble, however, Flanders comes into her own, shining in panicked hysteria more than she could as a supposedly cool seductress.
There is much more to admire. The set by John Arnone?dominated by mobile aristocratic glass-and-molding units standing stately against black curtains?conveys just the right unobtrusive marriage of elegance and emptiness. The religious discussions between Trebell and Charles Cantilupe, the church's parliamentary representative (Richard Easton), are surprisingly powerful. The production, nearly three hours long, does seem to slow a bit at points because Barker takes time to tie up loose ends for which we lack patience today. Still, rare as this work is, it's probably best that its text (in the revised 1926 version) was left more or less intact in this long-belated American premiere.
American Place Theater, 111 W. 46th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 239-6200, through April 2.
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