Brothers Barely Bad-Ass: True West @ CTD

The evening I attended True West at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Artistic Director Sue Loncar gave the curtain speech and explained why she chose to produce Sam Shepard’s black comedy. She said people kept complaining about “all the women’s plays” at CTD, so she decided to present one with an abundance of testosterone. Now that she has that off her chest, she can go back to doing splendid productions of the classic relational dramas and comedies audiences treasure her company for.

I esteem and respect Greg Lush and Mike Schraeder as actors. Both are capable of lighting up a stage, creating engaging, realistic, nuanced characters and of synthesizing complex text into truly memorable moments with skilled professionalism and style. Neither of them seems to belong in True West, certainly not in CTD’s production. Never did I believe for a moment that they were brothers capable of the dastardly behavior or depth of emotion this play requires. Neither appeared to inhabit his character with ease; instead they both displayed constant agitated superficiality. Instead of sophisticated interpretation, their non-stop hyperactivity and juvenile tricks (like dousing one’s bare chest in beer, or wallowing around on the floor in tiresome drunken stereotype) took a riveting dark play full of brooding tension leading to explosive mayhem and turned it into a gimmicky lightweight ha-ha about silly men-boys playing at being “bad-ass.” Maybe it would work more credibly if they switched roles? Shame to waste solid talent and a great script. T.A.Taylor and Laura Yancey, both experienced, versatile actors, appear briefly in the play.  Their arrivals should trigger cataclysmic changes in texture, energy and tension in the performance; given this production’s superficial treatment of character and theme, its sameness of presentation, neither had much impact. Incidentals adding a bit of color, not much more. Perhaps Director Cynthia Hestand intended to tame the show down, give it a lighter treatment, to not offend CTD’s loyal audience with this play’s innate visceral savagery. Watching the CTD production it’s hard to believe the work has commanded the level of production and caliber of actor it has over the years.

True West, written in 1980, examines explosive, unresolved issues between two brothers over several days and nights, punctuated by two brief scenes with a Hollywood movie agent and the brothers’ mother. Since its premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre where Shepard was the resident playwright, its lead actors have included Tommy Lee Jones, Peter Boyle, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, James Belushi, Gary Cole, Erik Estrada, and Dennis and Randy Quaid. In 2000, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly played the leads in a Broadway revival, switching parts every so often during the run. Both were nominated for Tony Awards along with the play and its director Matthew Warchus. In 2003, Wilson Milam mounted a lavish and updated production (including 20 working toasters) at the Bristol Old Vic. No expense was spared. The first three rows of seats were removed “for fear that the audience would be harmed and a Perspex shield was installed for safety reasons”, preparing for the final showdown.

It doesn’t always makes artistic sense to step outside a comfort zone, but I don’t criticize the honest intent here. True West run through February 27 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. I look forward to seeing Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas in April. It promises to be a vibrant, exceptionally fitting tribute to the legendary playwright, part of the regional Foote Festival.

George Wada photo: Greg Lush, Mike Schraeder

A 2009 bare bones production of True West in Denton that fulfilled playwright Sam Shepard’s intention:

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