AtticRep’s production of True West, Sam Shepard’s seminal examination of American strife and impotence, effectively draws out the contest between Manifest Destiny and the promise of the New World, between colonization and the desire to be “free.” It’s a spare play, simply although viscerally staged, and its success hangs on the sibling protagonists, older lout Lee, and younger successful writer Austin, played more than ably by local theater standouts Andy Thornton (Lincolnesque) and Rick Frederick (One for the Road, Fat Pig, Lincolnesque).
In this surreal, sometimes farcical drama, a man with nothing to lose and a man who thinks he has everything he wants swap psychological roles during the course of 3 hothouse days of drinking, conniving, and fighting. The combat is confined to the tidy suburban LA home of their mother, where Austin is working on a pitch and tending to Mom’s adored houseplants while she’s on vacation in Alaska. Into this relative American pastoral bursts the ne’er-do-well Lee, the last of a long line of six packs in hand.
The friction is immediate and palpable, as is the brothers’ mutual distrust and misunderstanding, and a familiar danse macabre follows. The older brother uses physical and verbal threats to undermine what he fears is his younger sibling’s superior intellect and virtue. The younger brother angles and wheedles for connection and a sign of respect from his elder brother, while the specter of a destitute father reminds us that the periodic retort “I can take care of myself!” is never really true, and that the greatest obstacle to that American mirage of rugged individualism are those family ties we thought we cut in the Old World, or at least by the time we got to the Midwest.
When agent-producer Saul Kimmer (Roger Alvarez) abruptly dumps Austin’s project in favor of a cheesy Western notion pitched by the dissolute Lee, the dynamic shifts in ways both predictable and shocking — that Saul gambled away Austin’s deal in a golf game lights up the travesty like an X-ray. There is no art here, only business as usual. The betrayal undoes Austin, inverts the brothers’ dynamic, and lays bare an irreconcilable American irony — the outsider artist yearns for the comfort and acclaim of market success, while the successful professional envies the untethered creative force of the outlier.
The sting that nets Lee Austin’s life reveals him to be both a dream and a nightmare of America: the lone wolf. Let him in, and he’ll have you for lunch, charming and terrifying you all the while. In a telling detail, when Saul arrives to cajole Austin into writing Lee’s screenplay, Lee appropriates Saul’s fancy sunglasses for his own, seemingly by reflex. He sees; he takes.
AtticRep troupe members Thornton and Frederick handle their characters’ rapidly cycling desperation and rage-driven machinations deftly. The Attic Theater is so intimate (note to Lee: “intimate” as in “on close personal terms”) that it almost affords director David Connelly the luxuries of film. He doesn’t always take advantage of them, and as a result, the quiet dramatic moments are the most powerful — particularly the scene in which Lee’s belligerance slowly deflates as Austin relates a soul-crushing tale from their father’s American odyssey. But the whole is a satisfying hyper-realism that thrives on the script’s rare (purposeful) hamhanded metaphor — the most egregious being Lee’s movie-pitch climax: “So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie ... What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”
In a cast of four, strong principals make for glaring weak spots, in this case Alvarez as Saul and Rita Crosby as Mom. Saul falls victim to broad stereotyping, from the blindingly white suit to the ever-ready Pepsodent smile, a relatively petty crime. But Crosby doesn’t seem to understand, much less identify with, her character — not an easy task, to be sure: Mom utters feeble double-entendre pleas (“You’ll have to stop fighting in the house. There’s plenty of room outside to fight. You’ve got the whole outdoors to fight in.”) while one son attempts to strangle the other. It’s possible, as a fellow critic suggested, that the actress or the director chose to play up the surreal aspects of Mom’s sudden appearance in a nod to True West’s more experimental predecessors — but the result here throws cold water on a well-stoked bonfire of vanities.
It’s no coincidence that this male-driven drama takes place in a civilizing feminine space that is antithetical to our idea of the atavistic artistic impulse. Where the acting falls short, the set design, by Martha Penaranda, mostly succeeds, filling out the maternal womb with telling homey details. The convex stage allows the characters to speak directly to one another from different rooms, amplifying the false foundations of their fleeting moments of rapport.
The costumes, also by Penaranda, are less convincing. Lee was unnecessarily, excessively filthy, and Mom’s shoe-sock-dress combo was a travesty, even for someone who thinks Picasso is actually going to be at the museum this afternoon. Or maybe that is authentic 1980s suburban LA hausfrau wear, in which case it’s a lone element of unfeeling anachronism in an otherwise enthralling night of theater. •
8pm Thu-Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Ruth Taylor Theater Building