Don’t come to True West hungry. If you do, be warned that somewhere in midst of Act 2, you’ll have to endure the image (and if you’re close enough, the aroma) of a not-insignificant amount of toast being made. Yes, toast.
That smell, and the eventual fate of those crisped carbs, are just two of the pleasant surprises in the new revival of True West opening Thursday. Another important twosome to note is the play’s stars, Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, who pair together marvelously in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play.
The last time True West was on Broadway in 2000, it starred another buzzy duo in John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who alternated the two main roles during their run. That’s not the case this time around, but both Hawke and Dano embody their respective parts so well it’s hard to imagine them switching.
Hawke — who worked with Shepard on both stage and screen prior to his death in 2017 — is delightfully smarmy as Lee, a lowlife with an affinity for stealing televisions, drinking, and smooth talking. Dano is Lee’s younger brother Austin, a screenwriter, who’s much more subdued and buttoned-up — at least at first.
True West places Lee and Austin together in their mother’s kitchen in a California suburb about 40 miles outside Los Angeles, while she’s out of town on a visit to Alaska (the set, by Mimi Lien, looks appropriately vintage, with cherry-print wallpaper and shelves of tchotchkes). Austin is there to work on a screenplay and water the plants, while Lee drops in to relieve other residents in the neighborhood of their electronic devices.
The brothers’ interactions start off polite enough, but when a Hollywood producer (Gary Wilmes) swings by for a meeting with Austin, the veneer of niceties erodes quickly. Lee dominates the conversation and sells the producer, Saul, on a story idea about the “true” American West, which he picks up instead of Austin’s period-piece love story.
Things devolve from there and Dano’s Austin reveals he’s more like his brother than you might initially think. The pair spar verbally, and later physically — a typewriter is destroyed, golf clubs and telephone cords are wielded as weapons, numerous purloined toasters make an appearance and Dano makes a literal meal out of loading them all with bread and buttering the finished product. By the time their mother returns, earlier than expected (Marylouise Burke, making a humorous, late-in-the-show cameo), they’ve all but devolved into chaos.
Hawke and Dano — who’ve both received accolades recently for the film First Reformed and the Showtime series Escape at Dannemora, respectively — do an excellent job going round for round, playing into the comedic moments of their fighting, and director James Macdonald gives the play a cinematic touch by using music and a picture-frame effect of bright lights around the stage between scenes. (The costumes, by Kaye Voyce, get more disheveled as the action ramps up.) But while watching them go at it is entertaining, what the play is fighting for isn’t as clear. There are themes of sibling rivalry and family strife (their father, unseen but spoken of, is a drunk living alone out in the desert), the idealized lawlessness of the Wild West, the way Hollywood deals are done and just as easily undone. But all those questions are left unanswered, with strewn beer cans and dead plants to show for all the debate. B+