nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
July 29, 2005
For those who are unfamiliar with Sam Shepard’s masterpiece, True West is the ultimate play about sibling rivalry. Two brothers spend a few nights together after they haven’t seen each other in five years. Austin is a successful screenwriter, married with children, who attended an Ivy League school. He is house-sitting his mother’s home in suburban California while she travels in Alaska. Lee, the older brother, is a rough-around-the-edges drifter and burglar who recently lived for three months alone in the Mojave Desert. In the Distillery Theatre Company’s production of the play, which had a short, three night run at the Irish Arts Center before traveling to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, actors Douglas Taurel and Foster Davis alternate the roles of Austin and Lee. On the night I saw the play, Taurel played Austin and Davis played Lee.
The play explores the brothers’ competitiveness, and is meant to show how each brother’s role defines the other’s, how they are really both the same beneath the surface, and how they depend on one another. The play is also about power. Lee obtains his power by bullying, intimidating, sometimes gambling or stealing. He thinks on his feet, lives moment to moment like a wild animal. Austin’s power comes from his success and money and the status he’s gained through his career and education. At the beginning of the play, Austin is researching and writing a Hollywood script, a period love story that he has been trying to close the deal on for months. He seems to have buried his wild, unrefined nature (if he ever had one). Lee prevents Austin from working by interrupting him with requests and questions, and he leans against the refrigerator as if he owns it. The dynamic between the brothers is clear. Lee can get Austin to do pretty much anything he wants because he knows Austin is frightened to death of him. He even makes a joke about it.
As the play progresses, Lee meets Austin’s producer, Saul (played by John Unruh) and coerces him into playing a round of golf and reading the outline for his own script idea. On the golf course, Lee gambles with Saul and wins the prize: for Saul to produce his movie and for Austin to write the script, a “true western” featuring men riding through the desert, through “tornado country” to get to the Mexican border. Lee’s script seems cliché, and one of the interesting things about True West is that the audience doesn’t really know if the producer likes the story or if he is scared out of his wits what Lee will do to him if he doesn’t follow through on his word. As Lee and Austin spend more nights together and things start to unravel for Austin, he realizes the Hollywood game he thought he knew how to play doesn’t work the way he thought it did. The men become caught up in a “tornado country” of their own, where the clarity of their roles as brothers blows apart.
As for the Distillery Theatre’s production, there are several problems, most of which could be fixed. As Lee, Foster Davis is powerful and fully committed. Standing at 6’3", he towers over his brother. He struts with confidence and easily takes control of the room. Douglas Taurel, as Austin, who is supposed to have everything resting on his screenplay, is not so convincing. He never seems to get across the desperation that his deal must come through, even when he says the words, “Everything’s riding on this project.” He clearly fears Lee and wants to get rid of him, but the stakes never really seem very high for him regarding his work.
On the night I saw the play, in several noticeable instances, the actors did not seem to be paying attention to the space around them. For example, in the beginning, Lee knocked over one of his mother’s precious plants. Austin, previously seeming very meticulous about the house, was standing right next to the spilled plant, but he walked over to the other plants to water them before he picked up the spilled one. This happened again in Act II when Austin was supposed to make toast but never pressed down the buttons of the toasters. He then took toast from a plate (not out of the toasters) and offered it to Lee. Also, at one point, Lee made a big deal about looking for something to write with when there was a cup of about 20 pencils sitting on the table where he was supposedly searching. It may seem like I am nitpicking, but what could have been honest moments on stage ended up hurting the play’s credibility because the actors did not seem to be reacting to what was happening in the room.
John Unruh, as Saul, the movie producer, plays the role as a Hollywood phony. His choice might work better if he also seemed more powerful, the kind of person who would have a lot of pull in the movie business. Geraldine Bartlett, as the mom, does well with the role. It’s a strange and very interesting part. She walks into a room where her house is trashed, her plants are dead, her sons are drunk and going mad, and a typewriter, which has been smashed with a golf club, sits on the floor, and pretends that everything is all right. The set, designed by Caroline Abella, is a very convincing small, suburban kitchen.
The most interesting thing about True West is that the audience sees, by the end, as Lee becomes dependent on Austin’s writing ability and as Austin unravels and gets increasingly out of control, that the brothers are really very much alike. In this production, unfortunately, there is not a clear enough change. As Austin, Douglas Taurel does seem to enjoy his gain of power over his brother. He makes fun of him and enjoys refusing to write the script. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to care enough about his old script for the breakdown of his polite manners to be believable, and he probably doesn’t take his breakdown far enough. Throughout the course of the play, when his character’s life is torn apart, nothing seems to really happen. Except for the final moments, which are really believable, the brothers’ fundamental relationship seems to remain the same.
Despite all these problems, I wish I had been able to see the production of this very difficult play again. I would have loved to see Taurel play Lee and Davis play Austin. True West is one of my favorite plays, and I am curious to see what the actors do with the roles in reverse.