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Theatre in Review: True West (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano. Photo: Joan Marcus.

True West is Sam Shepard's Gunfight at the LA Corral, a fratricidal throwdown between two brothers who couldn't be more different yet are psychologically chained to each other, haunted by an idea of the American West but fighting it out in a California tract house. No bullets are fired but the consequences of their conflict are dire, nonetheless. It begins with little passive-aggressive feints, escalates into a battle for dominance, and climaxes with a spectacular regression to infantile rage and fear that just about lays waste to the set. It's a portrait of conventional masculinity at its most toxic, a combination of rage and impotence that seems oddly of the moment, given our presidential politics, and it should have been theatrical dynamite. A review quoted on the show's poster calls it "rock-and-roll theatre."

Actually, James Macdonald's production is more like mood music, and the melody is surprisingly sedate. All the elements of a clanging confrontation are there, but somebody has held down the mute button, resulting in a black comedy strangely lacking in tension; even its most outrageous moments feel less explosive than dutifully carried out. True West depends on a volatile chemistry between the actors playing the two leads: Austin, a buttoned-up, soft-spoken, nose-to-the-grindstone screenwriter, and Lee, a feral creature, barely socialized, quite possibly sociopathic, and -- as a single glance reveals -- thoroughly unhygienic. Exactly why the combination of Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke -- who would seem to be ideally cast -- should fail to ignite is something of a puzzle.

As Lee, Hawke is a perfect hell of a mess. His face ruddy from the sun, his hair untouched by shampoo, his arms marked by tattoos, and his thickening middle barely held in place by a filthy sleeveless T-shirt, he is more fit for life in the Mojave Desert -- his most recent home -- than Southern California, where Austin is holed up in their mother's kitchen, finishing his latest project. (Mom has left for an Alaskan vacation, leaving Austin in charge of watering her voluminous display of houseplants.) Rootless, feckless, and possessed of a violent streak, Lee is a mirror image of their father, who, half-drowned in a pool of booze, lives in squalor off the grid. One look at him and you know trouble is in town.

Eyeing Austin at work, Lee insists, in surly tones, "I did a little art once." He proceeds to constantly interrupt, breaking his brother's concentration and making work impossible. Taking a drink -- his breakfast of choice is beer -- he mockingly raises a pinky, as if to signal that he, too, is in on the gentility racket. Co-opting Austin's car, he dangles his keys, toying with him sadistically. But, offered a loan, he becomes enraged, snarling, "You may be able to git away with the Old Man. Git him tanked up for a week! Buy him off with yer Hollywood blood money, but not me! I can git my own money my own way. Big money."

Up to this point, Lee's primary method of earning cash involves boosting televisions from nearby homes. But soon he is moving to annex Austin's producer, Saul, wooing him with a pitch for a nonsensical horse opera that consists of nothing but one long chase through "tornado country." Suddenly, Austin is on the outs, his hard work tossed for an insulting offer as Lee's co-scribe on a potboiler that wouldn't tax the brain of a five-year-old. "I could be just like you then, huh?" Lee says. "Sittin' around, dreamin' stuff up. Getting's paid to dream. Ridin' back and forth on the freeway just dreamin' my fool head off." By this point, Austin is ready to take Lee's fool head off, permanently.

Dano's Austin is prissy and priggish to a fault, a grind who labors over every page of his script, hoping for a big payday that will secure his fortune for his wife and kids. His manner is so gentle that Casper Milquetoast might take a punch at him, just for the hell of it. Faced with another brotherly provocation, he seemingly counts to ten before conceding once again, in weary tones -- anything to avoid a conflict. This quavering approach yields to open-mouthed astonishment as Lee returns from a golf date with Saul bearing a complete set of clubs (a gift from his new producer) and a six-figure deal. It's at this point that Austin starts to develop wild-man tendencies of his own, finding release in booze and acting out his own latent hostility.

Except he doesn't, really: The first act of True West should be electric with tension, but here the current never sizzles. Hawke amuses, whether haltingly employing the hunt-and-peck method to knock out his Western epic or getting caught up in miles of typewriter ribbon; he also has an easy, insinuating way of making observations -- turning a word or two around in his mouth, speculatively, as if checking a tire for leaks -- that is supremely undermining to Austin and his writing. (Hawke appears to have worked on his vocal production, to good effect; he has lost the unpleasant rasp that marked his recent theatre roles, replacing it with a wider range of tones.) There's also a genuine glint of panic in his eye when he discovers that the writing game might be tougher than he initially imagined, and he frantically tries to enlist Austin's assistance. But his furies seem manufactured, lacking in real menace or the hint of violence. The actor never summons the primal rage needed to drive the action to the point of calamity.

Dano is even less successful, delivering an Austin who is overwhelmed by Lee in Act I and unable to reclaim lost ground in Act II when he fights back, capitalizing on Lee's panic, then spiraling down with him into a near-animal state as they attempt to make sense of that damned movie pitch. By this point, the kitchen counter is covered with toasters -- Austin has taken up thievery, if only to prove that he can match Lee in criminality -- the floor is cluttered with debris, and Lee, filthy and falling out of his clothing, is peeing on one of the now-dead plants. As written, it is a spectacular tableau of dissipation, but here it offers the spectacle of two actors hitting their marks yet failing to stir up a really nasty ruckus.

Macdonald's production has some solid touches. As Saul, Gary Wilmes, outfitted in a lime-green polo shirt and ghastly plaid golfing slacks -- the perfectly on-point costumes are by Kaye Voyce -- exudes insincerity like an excess application of Coppertone, betraying Austin in the languid tones of one ordering a Bloody Mary after tee time. Marylouise Burke, the mistress of the deadpan, nonplussed look, offers a delightful cameo as Austin and Lee's out-of-it mother, who returns from her trip to find her kitchen in a state of ruin. The kitchen, complete with collectible china, cherry-patterned wallpaper, and a view of the Hollywood Hills, is another success for set designer Mimi Lien. Lighting designer Jane Cox provides a number of distinct time-of-day looks that are replaced by a surreal approach that is well-suited to the climax. (Not everyone will enjoy the blinder cues delivered by the lights embedded in the set's picture frame.) Bray Poor uses such effects as birdsong, barking dogs, and children at play to suggest life outside the house; his original music cannily apes the style of spaghetti-western master Ennio Morricone.

Lien's set executes a coup de théâtre at the end that is seemingly meant to remind us that Shepard was making a comment on the poisonous effects of certain American myths in a changing society. Lee and Austin are the damaged offspring of an outlaw father, grinding out a meretricious Hollywood Western while sitting in a suburban home in a California that has been essentially paved over. These themes are there in Macdonald's production, but they aren't vigorously presented, thanks to a staging that has the right moves but lacks the necessary fury. For all the effort expended, this is a mild, mild West. -- David Barbour

(4 February 2019)

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