REVIEW: Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in “True West”
Sam Shepard (1943-2017) was an artist who defied easy description, working as a playwright, poet, actor, director, and songwriter over the course of his sprawling and improbable career—always aimed at dismantling mythologies and shining a light on rootless and seedy American existence.
His 1980 play “True West”, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is heralded as one of his greatest works, and for good reason. Unfortunately, the Roundabout Theatre Company revival that recently opened on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre is more likely to leave theatregoers wondering why than proving the point.
Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano star as Lee and Austin, two estranged brothers ten years apart in age and lightyears apart in disposition. Austin, a fledgling Ivy League-educated screenwriter, is babysitting their mother’s house in the suburbs of Los Angeles while she takes an Alaskan cruise. A husband and father, pallid and mild-mannered, he dutifully cares for the plants while working to perfect his latest, and perhaps last-ditch effort at pitching a screenplay to the studios.
Enter Lee—like an outlaw strolling into a saloon—a shiftless, petty thief who has just emerged from three months in the Mojave Desert, rough-edged and ill-mannered. The two spar over their past and present. When Hollywood producer Saul Simmer (Gary Wilmes) takes a gamble to option Lee’s idea for a western film, abandoning Austin’s proposed love-story, the rivalry escalates toward manic, violent, and absurdist ends. Then Mom (Marylouise Burke) shows up.
The play is meant to be a deconstruction of the construct of identity, both in profession and familial rank, and the narrative mythologies—personal and national—that inform our perception of reality. That’s all there in the text, but is lost in this colorful, cinematic, and slow-paced production under the helm of British director James Macdonald.
The largest problem is the mismatch casting of Mr. Hawke and Mr. Dano, who never convincingly read as brothers with a shared past or shared DNA. John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman played the roles in the 2000 Broadway debut of the play at the more intimate Circle in the Square Theatre, famously alternating parts for every performance, living in each other’s shoes.
This time, rather than emphasize the commonality of the brothers, Mr. Macdonald’s approach—in casting and direction—seeks to explore the ten year age gap between them, and the differences in their personalities at first blush. While laudable, this tack erects an immediate fiction that merely festers scene after scene, preventing investment or the suspension of disbelief.
Mr. Hawke is menacing and untethered, grinning like a maniacal Jack Nicholson with broad gesture and almost frightening, unpredictable stage presence. Meanwhile, Mr. Dano, whose film work I much admire, is so straight in comparison that his own performance hardly registers, and has the effect of deepening the contrast with Mr. Hawke’s raw and full-throated turn.
As the characters blend in the second act, descending toward their primordial instincts, Mr. Dano rises to match Mr. Hawke’s energy, but it is too late an infusion of life into a mortally stale production.
Beyond this casting folly, the play itself chafes with the mores of 2019. Lee and Austin are lost in envy for one another and pained by the divergence of their sad reality with the high expectation created by the myths that have shaped their lives.
Straight white men in America are supposed to be successful breadwinners, living the American Dream. Their dream is a nightmare of struggle and drift, complicated by unresolved family trauma—dad’s an absent alcoholic, mom appears to avoid acknowledging the truth about anything—and arrested development.
While these are the salient themes that form the very thrust of what makes Shepard’s play so celebrated, it is hard to feel sympathy for Lee and Austin or their predicaments as we engage in a national conversation about toxic masculinity, and the novelty of exposing American myths of rugged individualism and wild west culture is increasingly passé.
That is not to say that Shepard, a great dramatist, no longer has anything to say to us—I believe the case is quite the opposite—only that this particular production of “True West” falls short in exploring the text anew for this moment.
As always, Roundabout assembles a top-notch creative team, with a widescreen, realistic cross-section kitchen and dining room set by Mimi Lien, evocative lighting by Jane Cox (in a ceilinged box, no less), and a tension-building sound design by Bray Poor. In the end, though, the play is the thing, and this underwhelming and miscast production misses the mark.
Bottom Line: Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano star in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West”. Colorful, cinematic, but slow-paced and cloudy, Hawke and Dano are miscast as brothers, giving wildly different performances that match in energy much too late.
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: January 24, 2019
Final Performance: March 17, 2019