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A CurtainUp Review
True West

There's gonna be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning. . . <—Austin
Tru West
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Austin
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
By the time Austin maniacally polishes the toasters he's stolen we're into the penultimate scene of Sam Shepard's True West. Earlier in the play the neat, Ivy league college graduate screenwriter compulsively mops up after his grungy, beer swilling older brother Lee who's dropped in unexpectedly at their absent mother's suburban Los Angeles home. Austin who lives in the East is there to keep mom's plants watered and to discuss a new screen project with a Hollywood producer. So how has this bourgeois example of the American success story become a petty thief like his grungy older brother Lee? It seems that as Austin has on occasion dreamed of living his brother's carefree life in the desert, Lee lives in the desert only because he can't make it elsewhere. And so he's inveigled the producer into a golf game and sold him on his version of a True West movie. Austin, now expected to help Lee, has hit the bottle as steadily as big brother pops open his endless cans of beer. The toasters were stolen to disprove Lee's declaration: "you couldn't steal a toaster without losin' yer lunch."

Scene one begins with an almost excruciatingly long Pinteresque pause. Finally the two men on stage begin to talk; it's a casual innocent enough exchange that establishes that they are brothers and that their mother has gone to Alaska. Bit by bit, pause by pause, other details come to light, often by way of laugh provoking one liners: Their father is in some unknown other place and the brother sitting at the glass topped wrought iron table is a screen writer. There are more meaningful pauses in the conversation. Despite the laughs it becomes clear that we were right in sensing tension in the air during those first silent moments. Harold Pinter's influence on True West is present not only in the pauses which often speak louder than words but in its two protagonists who are reminiscent of the two brothers in The Homecoming .

Influenced by Pinter he may be, but make no mistake about it, Sam Shepard is a true original and as directed by the British director Matthew Warchus this twenty-year-old ferociously funny and sad story of sibling rivalry and the psychic similarities present in two seemingly night and day personalities is as fresh now as it was then. It's a revival that seems to have been waiting for Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly to duke it out and to stamp the psychological battle all the more authentic by mastering and alternating each brother's role.

I should state at this point that their alternating roles unlike their characters' no-win battle, is not a who's best contest. The role of Lee is the showier role, so whichever actor plays it tends to seem somewhat more the star. But these actors, whose rapport stems from working together in several films, are winners in both casting combinations. I saw Hoffman as Lee and while he was extraordinarily powerful, Reilly was not only equally good as Austin, but I could easily visualize him in the "bad" brother role. Les Gutman saw a late preview version with the other setup and his brief comments can be found at the end of this review. (Les's footnote).

The big toast scene is definitely a double star turn. Austin is a marvelous blithe spirit, buttering toast as it pops out of the stolen toasters. As Austin putters about, Lee ferociously destroys the typewriter on which he's unsuccessfully tried to turn the idea Austin refuses to help him with into a workable outline. The toast smells good enough to eat, but ends up becoming part of the already mad disarray resulting from Lee's manic search for a pencil.

Another big scene for Austin is his counter "true story" to Lee's made up mythical western. It's a quiet recollection of the time he took their alcoholic father out for Chop Suey after he'd lost all his teeth only to have poor old dad drop the teeth into the take-home doggie bag and promptly leave both behind, never to be found again.

If Broadway tickets were priced as they were when True West originally opened (At the Magic Theater in San Francisco, Off-Broadway at the Public and later at the Cherry Lane), half the audience who see one version would make time to see the other as well. However, don't consider yourself short-changed if you see only one -- either one.

Good as the actors are the play's the thing. The extraordinary battle Austin and Lee fight in their absent mother's ordinary suburban Los Angeles house is what makes different interpretations worth seeing (no one who saw them is likely to ever forget John Malkovich and Gary Sinise). I don't quite agree with those who would classify True West as the greatest play of the twentieth century but it is an entertaining psychic battle royal which leaves you thinking about myths that defy retrieval, individual identity and family bonds -- and especially so in this revival with these actors.

The two other actors make only brief appearances. Robert LuPone is as tinseltown phony as you could want a Hollywood producer to be. Celia Weston exemplifies the virtues of understatement in the essentially walk-on role of the mother returning early from Alaska to find her plants dead and her home (like her family) in shambles.

Brian MacDevitt's lighting, especially the portentous darkness at the beginning, gives the production a cinematic flavor which is further enhanced Claire Van Kampen's original music and Jim van Bergen's sound design. Rob Howell's scenery and costumes serve the play well.

Some ticket buying advice: The stage consists of a built up platform that is at about the midpoint of the semicircle. There are also several added rows of seats on the front edge of the stage. These require you to look up to see the stage but they are very much in the thick of things. The seats in the bottom of the "U" are relatively better than they would be for some other shows at this venue.

The schedule (subject to last minute changes!) for who will play which brother:
Reilly as Lee; Hoffman as Austin 3/3 eve, 3/4 eve, 3/5 mat, 3/10 eve, 3/11 mat & eve, 3/15 eve, 3/16 eve, 3/17 eve, 3/21 eve, 3/22 mat & eve, 3/25 eve, 3/26 mat, 3/28 eve, 3/31 eve, 4/1 mat & eve, 4/5 eve, 4/6 eve, 4/7 eve, 4/11 eve, 4/12 mat & eve, 4/15 eve, 4/16 mat, 4/18 eve, 4/21 eve, 4/22 mat & eve, 4/26 eve, 4/27 eve, 4/28 eve, 5/2 eve, 5/3 mat & eve, 5/6 eve, 5/7 mat, 5/9 eve, 5/12 eve, 5/13 mat & eve, 5/17 eve, 5/18 eve, 5/19 eve, 5/23 eve, 5/24 mat & eve, 5/27 eve, 5/28 mat, 5/30 eve, 6/2 eve, 6/3 mat & eve

Hoffman as Lee; Reilly as Austin 3/7 eve, 3/8 mat & eve, 3/12 mat, 3/14 eve, 3/15 mat, 3/18 mat & eve, 3/19 mat, 3/23 eve, 3/24 eve, 3/25 mat, 3/29 mat & eve, 3/30 eve, 4/2 mat, 4/4 eve, 4/5 mat, 4/8 mat & eve, 4/9 mat, 4/13 eve, 4/14 eve, 4/15 mat, 4/19 mat & eve, 4/20 eve, 4/23 mat, 4/25 eve, 4/26 mat, 4/29 mat & eve, 4/30 mat, 5/4 eve, 5/5 eve, 5/6 mat, 5/10 mat & eve, 5/11 eve, 5/14 mat, 5/16 eve, 5/17 mat, 5/20 mat & eve, 5/21 mat, 5/25 eve, 5/26 eve, 5/27 mat, 5/31 mat & eve, 6/1 eve, 6/4 mat

Les Gutman on Austin and Reilly

A brief footnote to Elyse's review which I can second almost without exception: Having seen Hoffman as Austin and Reilly as Lee, I would not be so fast to give Lee's character the upper hand. Hoffman finds enough depth and quirkiness in the fastidious Austin's transformation that I'd judge it a dead heat. And that's not intended as anything less than the highest praise for Reilly's greasy rendering of Lee.

I had a slightly different take than my boss on Celia Weston as the mother. She struck me as so "understated" that I wondered why she was needed at all. -- Les Gutman

By Sam Shepard Performances begin February 17, 2000; opening, March 9, 2000.
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly--who will alternate roles
With Robert LuPone and Celia Weston
Set and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Jim Van Bergen
Original Music: Claire Van Kampen
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 2 hours without intermission
Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (50th St--8th/7thAv.) 239-6200
Performances from 2/17/2000; opening 3/09/2000
The show was supposed to close June 18th but extended with Josh Brolin and EliasKoreas taking over the leading roles
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/14 performance
©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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