But, oh, that over rated script! True West is the one about the two brothers bunking at their mother's southern California home while Mom is off on a trip to Alaska. One brother, Austin, is a screenwriter; the other, Lee, is a drifter, whose main talent is carting appliances out of poorly secured houses. The wary siblings seem never to have been on easy terms with each other: "You never did know too much about me," Lee says to Austin, who doesn't disagree. And the tension between them thickens during the few days they pass under the same roof while Austin hammers out a movie script for a glad-handing producer who, as irony would have it, ends up drawn more to the outline for a western Lee conjures up.
The standard view of True West--and the reason for its supposed dramatic allure--is that the changes Austin and Lee undergo eventually lead to their swapping personalities. Evidently, many have found that the transformation reflects a profound psychological truth. But not only does such an occurrence seem convenient and pat--a stunt, really--it's an inaccurate understanding of what goes on during the play's increasingly frenzied nine scenes.
To be sure, Lee does appear to get a momentary upper hand when producer Saul Kimmer--he of the shit-eating grin--cottons to the outline of Lee's western, which involves two men in a chase across barren Texas panhandle flatlands. (Similarity to the Austin-Lee entanglement is hard to miss.) Lee, though, never finishes his screenplay--he can't even type--and the now jealous and spiteful Austin refuses to help. What really transpires is that the low-life brother remains very much himself and succeeds in dragging the better-educated Austin down to his level.
Because Shepard has a great ear for the language people use when they're uncomfortable with one another and are trying not to show it, the opening True West give-and-take not only registers as real, but also gets repeated laughs. Furthermore, when Lee, dipping his dirt-begrimed toes into the waters of confidence, admits to having envied Austin's life and Austin replies in kind, an infrequently examined aspect of sibling rivalry is painfully illuminated. But Shepard overplays his hand--or is he underplaying it?
He's got a message to deliver about civilization merely being a veneer all too easily scrapped away if blunt tools are handy. Once Austin and Lee lose a grip on civility and begin destroying their absent mother's sunny suburban kitchen, they are merely two slobs on a binge, the conclusion of which the audience guesses long before the two crazed men face each other with hate and fear in their eyes.