By Tulis McCall
There are times when I feel that I should tag my posts “The Minority Review”. After listening to the audience hooting and hollering their approval for Roundabout Theatre’s production of True West, that is exactly where I am positioned. I have no idea what play the audience saw – perhaps it was just one or two steps over in a different dimension. That would explain it.
This sad production did teach me one thing – Sam Shepard’s writing is like witnessing the crafting of a fishing net. With each sentence, the hook and the twine are slipped into an adjoining bit, until the finished product is, well, finished. The brothers, Lee (Ethan Hawke) and Austin (Paul Dano) are hooked into one another. The exact nugget of this connection is not important, which is part of the reason we are intrigued. This play is like watching a street fight slowly unfold. The two men jab and parry, stalk, slam and inflict some serious damage on one another. The time appears to be late 1970’s. Lee is back in town after living as a grifter out in the desert. Austin is staying at their mother’s place – a Southern California suburb East of L.A. while he puts the finishing touches on a screen writing reel and house sits while mom (Marylouise Burke) is on vacation.
It takes a bout a nanno-second to realize that Lee likes to pull the wings off of flies, and most likely his first taste of this was experimenting on his little brother. Austin has grown in the years since and fancies himself a responsible family man, though what he actually does to take care of his family remains a mystery. Lee is in town because he has run out of houses to rob, and he could use a bath from the looks of him.
That’s it. That is all you ned to know. This is combat. The two actors take it from here.
This is where this play slides off the rails. Paul Dano is not up to the task of taking on his character as well as defending himself agains the likes of Hawke. Hawke is more capable and takes command of everything pretty much from the get go. The imbalance is astonishing. Nothing that Dano does in the first act is believable. He indicates and flummoxes up a storm – but nothing sticks. He picks up speed in the second act, but by that time the train has left the station. Hawke by contract is like a trapeze performer looking to dazzle. For some reason, he pulls out mannerisms of John Malkovich, which is unfortunate and undermines his work. Gary Wilmes as Saul Kimmer (movie producer) seems lost. What is a critical dividing line for the brothers needs to be spelled out when it should be slid like a razor. Mary Louise Burke has a limited time on stage, and her critical view point is absent as she stands reciting lines and not connecting with her sons or her surroundings.
The audience loved the manly thrashing and chasing (literally) – hooting and cheering as the brothers took on each other as well as their mother’s house. It occurred to me that these people could be actual descendants of the folks who cheered on the lions back at the Coliseum.
People will go to see Ethan Hawke, and there are moments when he does not disappoint. He is an actor who loves adventure, and that commitment is infectious. You can feel him wandering around inside Lee like a man who has not eaten in about a week. He will try anything – and that puts us on notice.
As for there rest – it was all Sturm und Drang, all “storm and drive” without destination or shelter. Ye olde sound and fury signifying nada. In a word, boring.
TRUE WEST – By Sam Shepard, Directed by James Macdonald
WITH: Marylouise Burke, Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke and Gary Wilmes
The creative team includes Mimi Lien (Sets), Kaye Voyce (Costumes), Jane Cox (Lights) and Bray Poor (Sound).
Tickets for True West are available by calling 212.719.1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org, in person at any Roundabout box office: American Airlines Theatre Box office (227 West 42nd Street); The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 W 46th Street) and Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street); or by visiting StubHub, The Premier Secondary Ticketing Partner of Roundabout. Ticket prices range from $59-$169. For groups of 10 or more please call 212-719-9393 x 365 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
True West plays Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00PM with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00PM.