'True West' untrue to Shepard's vision

Joe Canuso (left) as Saul and Brian Osborne as Lee in the Theatre Exile production of Sam Shepard's "True West."
Joe Canuso (left) as Saul and Brian Osborne as Lee in the Theatre Exile production of Sam Shepard's "True West." (PAOLA NOGUERAS)
Posted: February 08, 2014

Sam Shepard's terrific play True West is exactly the kind of show Theatre Exile is good at: funny and dangerous and profound. So it is surprising that this new production seems so tame and falls so flat.

The central characters are brothers. As the play opens, they are meeting for the first time in five years. Lee (Brian Osborne) is a nasty drifter, an outcast, a hustler who has been living in the Mojave Desert. Austin (Jeb Kreager) is a respectable screenwriter, married with children, working on a script about love. Saul (Joe Canuso) is the producer, who should seem slimy but doesn't. The central performances by Osborne and Kreager seem showy and superficial: a couple of frat boys playing drunk, playing violent.

The location is crucial: their mother's kitchen in a California suburb where yapping coyotes lure domestic pets to their deaths or to their feral natures, with deafening crickets and sweltering heat. Their wifty mother (C. Ashley Izard) returns from her vacation in Alaska to discover her sons, grown men, have trashed her kitchen and reverted to boyhood. "Stop fighting in the house," she tells them. "You've got the whole outdoors to fight in."

The issue, as it so often is in American plays, is manhood: the struggle between what Shepard called "the rassler" and "the book guy." So the battle between Lee and Austin is both existential (how one should live) and psychological (the divided self). The brothers may be one man, and their unresolved battle may be an internal one. And that lack of resolution should be revealed in the play's stunning conclusion, in which the men face off.

But because Matt Pfeiffer has made so many odd directorial choices, none of that is revealed in this production.

Shepard wrote a two-act play, but Pfeiffer collapses it into one act, losing all the meaning of the two-part structure: two actors playing two brothers who are two kinds of men who then switch roles in Act 2, as Austin steals a bunch of toasters and Lee tries to write a screenplay.

Shepard has always loved highly theatrical lighting: lights bang up, blackouts. His lighting directions are very specific and carry much of the play's meaning. Pfeiffer ignores these directions and instead gives us weird flashing lights with strange music while the two actors scurry around changing props and awkwardly resetting the stage themselves.

The title gives us the topic: If there is a mythic American West, is it the old frontier, or is it Hollywood, or is it the Wild West we know from Hollywood movies? Is authenticity anywhere to be found, or is everything an imitation of itself, a "fantasy of a long-lost boyhood"? Nostalgia is a fool's game: You can't go home again, everybody knows that. But we'd never know it from this production of True West.

True West

Through Feb. 23 at Theatre Exile at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Pl. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: theatreexile.org, 215-218-4022.

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