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True West

Stand back, Sam Shepard fans. The print equivalent of those flying-food scenes the apocalypse-soon playwright likes to slot into his volatile works is about to take place. Some verbal tomatoes are to be aimed at True West, currently having a flashy Broadway revival. No acrimony will, however, be lobbed at Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, alternating in the lead roles and drawing movie-fan-like audiences able to leap to their feet and cheer when the last line of dialogue has been spoken rather than being consigned to shuffle out silently as credits roll.

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.
Shepard seems so pleased with an apercu about the tragedy of the American way and the disintegration of the true West that he's almost as sloppy about other dramaturgical elements as Austin and Lee are at throwing buttered toast about, hammering a typewriter with a golf club and tossing drawers of utensils on the floor. He's careless with plot details, raising questions about the characters' situations and motives that he never bothers to resolve. For instance, Austin is married and has a couple of children. Why does he never contact them? Has he left home? Is he estranged from his wife? Are worries about his career preoccupying him? What kind of career has he had?

If Lee has been breaking into homes and making off with valuables, have there been no consequences (particularly given how blundering he is)? Since Lee also plays a mean round of golf and gives evidence of knowing a thing or two, where has he picked up his schooling, and why has he so casually cast it aside? When Mother returns from Alaska earlier than expected, why is she not outraged at what the boys have done to her home? It's not enough to say that True West is excused from these kinds of logical questions. No play can remove itself from its internal logic.

But if the stunt at the center of True West is a let down, the second stunt in this version--having Hoffman and Reilly play both parts, on alternating nights--works like gangbusters. Not that all, or even many, audience members will buy tickets for both frames. Knowing that these savvy scene chewers are switching off may be enough to satisfy the crowds, behaving in the slightly reconfigured Circle in the Square as if they're at a WWF match. That's right, sports fans, Hoffman, Reilly and director Matthew Warchus--who also did right by men behaving badly in Art--may even be thinking Madison Square. What they've placed on Rob Howell's square set (it's only missing a mat) is a wrestle to the finish.

Hoffman is an actor who disappears into the skin of whomever he's playing, which explains why he's delivered at least three memorably accurate and different movie performances this year. His Austin has a funny shuffle; he hustles fastidiously everywhere. He's the kind of hands-in-pockets type who seems superficially content but instantly becomes weepy when his wrapping is punctured. Even his yells come out whiny at the edges. As an actor, Reilly has the look of the guy behind the hardware store counter; it's a surprise he's acting at all. Reilly's Lee is a lumbering man who knows he holds terror in his eyes, and expects his lean and hungry look to preempt resistance.

Since Hoffman and Reilly have become Paul Thomas Anderson players--most recently, they appeared, without sharing scenes, in Magnolia--the implication is that they're on a similar and off-beat wave-length. The bonding here, even as the characters they play come undone, would seem to confirm their solidarity. Robert LuPone as Kimmer catches their stride, but Celia Weston as their mother doesn't. Maybe it's the part that hampers her, but maybe she could have conveyed more shock than she does at the unexpected situation. She expresses no more surprise when she hits stage than she might have had she wandered in on her sons playing catch with her mah jongg tiles.

For readers wondering whether I saw Hoffman as Lee and Reilly as Austin, the answer is yes. Hoffman's Lee is more frightening, more menacing, more unpredictable than Reilly's. Reilly's Austin is different from Lee's, but has an approximately equal impact. Oddly, I had expected Hoffman to be the better Austin and Reilly the better Lee. But so it goes.

True West begins with Austin and Lee saying nothing to each other, listening to crickets filling the still, hot summer night with their ratcheting. What shortly becomes apparent is that the monotony is a metaphor for the play's ultimate failure.