In 'True West,' Family Is Toast

"True West"
Written by Sam Shepard; directed by Robert Walsh; scenic design by Janie E. Howland; costume design by Molly Trainer; lighting design by Linda O'Brien; sound design/original music by Cameron Willard; fight director, Robert Walsh

Cast in order of appearance:
Lee, Todd Alan Johnson
Austin, John Kuntz
Saul Kimmer, Stephen Epstein
Mom, M. Lynda Robinson

Performances: Now through November 20
Box Office: 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org

From the moment the lights come up on the New Rep's production of Sam Shepard's "True West," we know we are in for a night of edgy, if offbeat and irreverent, family drama. A looming Clint Eastwood-like antihero dressed in black overcoat and pants is silhouetted menacingly in the moonlight as he poses – Spaghetti Western style – by the upstage kitchen sink. Across the room, seated at a 1950s red Formica table taking notes by candlelight, is a Walter Mitty type – an All American geek donning an earth toned plaid shirt, beige cardigan sweater, and wrinkled khakis. The first words we hear and movements we see are intrusive ones. "Am I bothering you?" the laconic brother Lee says as he hovers over a fidgety Austin. The audience laughs nervously, and we're off and running.

Sam Shepard's brilliant dissection of the relationship between two brothers polarized by the ways in which they have chosen to deal with their emotional abandonment as children is given gritty yet heartfelt treatment here by director Robert Walsh and his actors, Todd Alan Johnson and John Kuntz. As Lee and Austin, respectively, Johnson and Kuntz show the same kind of economy in expression as Shepard shows in his writing. They and their director seem to clearly understand that spellbinding power often comes from what is not said or done. In this riveting New Rep production, these superb actors don't say what Shepard doesn't write exquisitely well.

"True West" cleverly questions the virtues of conformity versus individualism by pitting the ostensibly successful Ivy League grad, family man, and screenwriter Austin against bad boy recluse and petty thief Lee. The latter has returned to his childhood home after spending three months alone in the desert to find that his younger brother has been entrusted with the care of the property – and the houseplants – while their mother is vacationing in Alaska, the last American frontier. Austin is desperately trying to close the deal on a screenplay that he views as his last chance to make it big, but Lee's sudden appearance derails his focus at every turn. Driven by their smoldering resentment of each other and their unresolved feelings toward their absent and alcoholic father, they engage in an escalating game of one-upmanship that becomes at times haunting and hilarious.

Lee begins the competition by saying that he breaks into better houses than Austin enters by invitation. He continues by suggesting that his idea for a modern western would make a better screenplay than his brother's "simple love story." Lee proceeds to taunt Austin into creating an outline from his dictated "contemporary true story" and coerces him into showing it to his agent, Saul Kimmer, at their next meeting. When Kimmer ends up preferring Lee's idea to Austin's, roles are suddenly reversed with Lee now concerned about deadlines and Austin finding solace in the bottle.

Johnson and Kuntz masterfully switch the balance of power back and forth as they teeter between men struggling to find some lasting light and boys running aimlessly away from persistent shadows. In scene after scene, they ride the ebb and flow of Shepard's mercurial tension as naturally as any two brothers struggling to free themselves from their tortured history together all the while clinging to each other for safety.

Frequently they break the tension by wryly exploiting Shepard's absurd comic patches. Johnson's Lee throws tantrums that leave numerous stage props in shambles, and Kuntz's Austin finally lets loose in a drunken stupor that leads him to prove his prowess as both a burglar and a master of small kitchen appliances. Together they turn the playwright's use of toast as metaphor into first a raucous celebration, then a source of creature comfort, and finally a symbol of their crumbling lives.

This New Rep production of "True West" deftly exposes the genuine affection that lies beneath the crippled relationship of two brothers destined to chase each other in circles through eternity. While neither has made a healthy adjustment in life as a result of his family's dysfunction, each secretly fantasizes that he would be better off in the other one's shoes. When they do in fact trade places, both are truly lost.

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From This Author Jan Nargi

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