Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly bring an edge to the Broadway play

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated December 22, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

For years, people tended to associate Sam Shepard’s True West with two actors: John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Their unforgettable delivery of the play, preserved on film in 1984, was brooding and austere; the actors seemed to be summoning ghosts from the parched, crickety Southern California landscape. But when Hoffman and Reilly revived Shepard’s blistering Cain-and-Abel duel for Broadway this year, audiences were knocked flat with something of a revelation: True West is…funny. Not just funny, but hilarious! Without once undermining the tragic and mythic themes of the playwright’s text, two of Hollywood’s finest character actors managed to elicit genuine howls of laughter from New York City crowds. (Who knew that Austin and Lee, the guys at the core of True West‘s fraternal slugfest, owe as much to Felix and Oscar as they do to Iago and Othello?) Most remarkable of all, Reilly and Hoffman blithely swapped roles: On any given night, you might catch Reilly as Austin and Hoffman as Lee, or vice versa. Each actor was equally flawless, fearless, and uproarious, regardless of whether he played the polite, preppy Hollywood screenwriter or the sun-scorched, beer-swilling, Machiavellian Mojave drifter. Hey, Malkovich, are you ready for a rematch?