Hawke, Paul Dano Photo: Joan Marcus
by Fern Siegel
we knew the term “toxic masculinity,” Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West,
now in revival at the American Airlines Theatre, reveled in it.
story of two mismatched brothers is a study in menace, sibling rivalry and
family despair. It’s like watching a deranged tennis match: Each lobs insults
at the other. And over time, they morph into one seriously disturbed player.
(Paul Dano) is a mild-mannered screenwriter, hoping to sell his latest creation
to producer Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes). But work proves futile — he is
constantly interrupted by Lee (Ethan Hawke), his shiftless sociopath of a
brother. Both are holed up at their mother’s California home. Lee is a thief
who has been living rough in the desert. He’s the kind of guy who drinks cheap
beer — incessantly — and spouts ludicrous comments he thinks pass for conversation.
Austin, armed with a family
and career, makes tentative offers to help his troubled sibling, but it’s clear
he is the more psychologically vulnerable of the two. Lee is wrapped in
self-interest; willing to steal anything, even his brother’s chance to score
big with Saul.
that battle defines True West.
prowls the stage like a caged animal, ready to spring at any opportunity. He’s
even managed to con Kimmer into doing his half-baked idea for a Western instead
of Austin’s tenderer romantic tale. That betrayal shatters Austin and sets the
stage for the final act of destruction.
they face off, Shepard places them on a collision course between civilized man
and his violent, primordial past. Masculinity becomes a race for the bottom.
There’s even a discussion of the West, and what defines its authenticity.
it doesn’t help that glaring strobe lights separate scenes. The drama is
punctuated by action; it doesn’t need an artificial in-your-face reminder.
Issues of family dysfunction and losing control consume Shepard. True West
is often considered the third in a trilogy that includes Curse of the
Starving Class and Buried Child. All posit figures usually excluded
from the American Dream.
the last Broadway incarnation of True West in 2000, Philip Seymour
Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated roles. In the Roundabout Theatre’s
production, each man is set. It’s a fight between Austin’s sensitivity and work
ethic and Lee’s relentless desire to get something for nothing. In the middle
of an intense encounter, their oblivious mother (Marylouise Burke) enters,
oddly unaware of the havoc her sons have wreaked.
Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke Photo: Joan Marcus
is simply part of the family ethos — including the alcoholic father who
abandoned them. He’s never seen but often invoked, a specter that haunts his
there is the war for the new — or is it old — West and the desire to determine
destiny. That the brothers begin to resemble each other is all the more
frightening. Intelligence and manners are no match for darker forces.
is a perfect Lee; he carries a sense of danger even in the most casual of
encounters. He wears Lee’s craziness like a second skin. Similarly, Dano
masters the quieter Austin. Even when he tries to mimic his brother’s simple
thievery, it’s reactionary. Neither embraces the essence of the other, yet
ideally, audiences should see glimpses of a dual reflection, since they
James Macdonald’s tight direction, the sense of danger and disquiet is real.
While stark questions of identity and place are broached, the shattering play
underscores the overarching sadness in Shepard’s world: There are no winners;
only degrees of losers.
Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42 St. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Tickets:
Through March 17