Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano are having a riotous time playing sparring brothers in this Roundabout Theatre Company production of the late Sam Shepard’s nasty but often darkly hilarious 1980 play “True West.” Their dueling performances are a highlight of the current season.
Hawke delivers a superb portrayal of Lee, a frustrated, hyper and resentful wanderer in his early forties. Dano, also superb, plays Lee’s younger brother Austin, in his early thirties, and, temporarily away from his wife and kids, he is working on a screenplay for which he has a commitment. The scene is the California house, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, belonging to the mother of Austin and Lee. Austin has been living in the place while their mother is away on a trip to Alaska. There are references to their absent father as an impoverished man who needs their help but drinks away any money that he receives.
Lee, who sounds off about having lived gloriously in the Mojave desert, has arrived unexpectedly, intruding on Austin. It is clear from the start that Lee is deeply jealous of Austin, who in turn wants to keep his aggressive brother at bay. Not bloody likely in Shepard’s acerbic examination of their hostile relationship.
Austin wants Lee to be out when he has an appointment with film producer Saul Kimmer, played assertively by the excellent Gary Wilmes. No such luck. Lee not only intrudes, but arranges to play golf with Kimmer the next day, and as we soon learn, has sold the producer on a cockamamie story idea for a western, which puts Austin’s project in jeopardy.
Mayhem builds as Lee, who has no talent for writing, presses Austin for help, and the brothers increasingly tear at each other in arguments that grow violent as they wreck much in the house. What emerges during a binge of drinking and battling is the revelation that Austin has been living with his own suppressed fears and frustrations.
Shepard has supplied a pile of funny lines and situations, a gold mine for the stars. When Dano breaks loose as Austin, his anger comes to a boil in contrast with his early cool, and Lee has scary and destructive temper tantrums.
There is hilarity when Mary Louise Burke as Mom shows up unexpectedly and gapes at the total mess before her. Mom seems as nutty as Lee and her placid reaction to the chaos is wonderfully funny in this acting coup by Burke. Nothing seems to bother her, even the climactic violence that we have seen coming from the outset.
So what is Shepard saying in this portrait of an American family? For one thing he shows men who are not all of what they seem. He is also poking fun at the business of making movies. He explores lurking anger between siblings, Somewhere in all of it lies the pursuit of the American dream gone sour.
Shepard’s genius is that he is able to express his ideas with so much humor. There is a lot to laugh at even as one may cringe from the basic ugliness of what we are witnessing.
Director James Macdonald has staged the play with comic and dramatic precision. Hawke and Dano make the most of the opportunity, and their timing through it all is letter-perfect, as is their interpreting of the dialogue. As for Mimi Lien’s set design, a rectangular embrace of the proscenium by lighting (design by Jane Cox) bursts forth between scenes, which helps to intensify the production. At the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed January 31, 2019.