The shady one is envious of the square one, then the square one is envious of the shady one. They each end up wanting each other’s life, but how can both of them survive the whiplash transitions of what that might mean?
Austin (Paul Dano) is a hard-working, doughty and conventional screenwriter. He is housesitting for his mom, who is away in Alaska. His just-returned not-that-prodigal brother Lee (Ethan Hawke) wears a dirty black raincoat, is a mess, thief and menace. In an old-school western, one might be Jack Palance and the other Alan Ladd. But True West is more perverse and tricksy: Austin and Lee take over their mom's suburban house, wreck it, and wreck each other.
You think, initially, that it’s very unwise that Austin would tangle with Lee at all. They haven’t seen each other in five years. Lee has been in the desert searching for their father.
Austin, in his sensible blue shirt jeans, from which Dano emanates a lovely fey superciliousness, is surely no match for Lee, with his beard, greasy hair and soiled vest that (good news, Hawke fans) eventually disintegrates, his brooding physicality, and the unstated crimes and shadiness he is bringing into this house. Hawke looks at his brother through his curtain of greasy hair, and you think of calling 911 yourself.
We’ve seen both actors play different kinds of crazy on screen, both as men of the cloth; Hawke, most recently (and excellently) in First Reformed (2018), and Dano in There Will Be Blood (2007).
Mimi Lien’s precisely evocative set for this Roundabout Theatre Company production is as impressive as the acting—a slice of late 1970s suburbia, here is a living room and kitchen many might recognize, the wallpaper a riot of cherries and their stalks, sundry dishes and bowls and odd knick-knacks, phone with huge cord on the wall, and hanging houseplants. Through the window we see other houses. We are on a quiet street, and an apocalypse is about to unfold.
There are intimations that all will not be well, even without a word spoken: the sound of coyotes (and Shepard, who died in 2017, is very specific about the kind of howl they have and don’t have in his notes for the play), and the bugs outside who drive Lee to hilarious madness.
Between scenes, the stage goes dark as various things are rearranged, its frame lit up; presumably a reference to the movies that are the thematic heart of True West, written in 1980 and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist in 1983. It was last on Broadway in 2000 with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating between roles during the run.
The title is usefully ambiguous; we are in the true west of Shepard’s imagination, a cauterized, deadening suburbia. At first we worry that Lee has come to do Austin harm, after all as Hawke’s snarling menace suggests, Lee must be jealous of Austin’s success and security. Austin’s car keys become the symbol of their extended power play: Lee wants them to go out and drive; Austin is worried he may never return. He is worried that Lee will thieve from his mom’s neighbors.
When producer Saul Kimmer (Gary Wilmes) comes to visit, Lee sets out to hijack his brother using insinuation and golf, and this he does successfully, until it is him struggling over a typewriter and Austin getting drunk and going door to door in the neighborhood stealing toasters. Meanwhile, Lee is trying to configure his own “true west” in a chase-based script Austin sees as farcical and dumb.
Director James Macdonald and Dano get the most from Austin leaving the tracks; we watch as he makes multiple rounds of toast, and then see that toast used as a piled-high instrument of mental torture. When the brothers go properly to war, very physically, the house becomes a war-field. At the worst moment, their mother (Marylouise Burke) returns home.
Big bad Lee becomes a puddle of boyish regret and fear in her presence. She doesn’t really respond how a mother might react to seeing one brother on the verge of killing the other. Sure, she asks her son not to do it, but really her mood is exhaustion: she’d rather be in a hotel than around this.
Her scratchy, over-it reaction echoes the oddness of tone in True West. It reads as a slapstick Cain and Abel, with very high stakes, but when to take its characters and their demons seriously is a strange guessing game. Austin and Lee do crazy things—strangulation, pissing in plants, drinking while lying on the kitchen counter, fighting and destroying their mother’s home—but we wonder why Austin especially does what he does, and what rancor and dysfunction lies at the center of both men's damage.
Shepard withholds a lot of information about both men, and what has truly brought them to where we see them. But the ghost of that absent father in the desert, never seen but so often invoked, seems to be a missing person of significance in an unseen setting of even greater significance.
Austin is the biggest, most watchable surprise; Dano's paralytic letting-go is wonderful—a cavalcade of clowning, pratfalls, and jerky limbs—because what’s more funny than a fuddy-duddy going loco? More darkly, he seems to want more from Lee than Lee, or we, might recognize.
The promise of finally living in the “true west” with his brother, out there in the western wilderness, away from all of life’s concerns, becomes his most ardent wish as the last visual trick of the play illustrates.
The tragic love story in True West is between brothers, but Shepard and his actors gruffly disavow what that might mean, and the play is all the more puzzling because of it. Instead, they wrestle, drink, snarl, bait, and curse to the end, two flipsides of masculinity, the American spirit, and family, all gone awry.
That ending underlines the general feel of unreality about the play. For all its mundane suburban setting—the kitchen you recognize, the house plants you may have watered too—True West also feels surreal and otherworldly, with brothers grim who also grin.
True West is at the American Airlines Theatre, NYC, until March 17.