Lee (Kevin Crowley) is a ne’er-do-well who turns up at his mother’s house in southern California and finds his younger brother, Austin, (Scott McMaster) house sitting while Mom is vacationing in Alaska. Austin has a wife and kids up north, but here he has a quiet place to work on a screenplay that has been optioned by Saul Kimmer (Alan Knoll), a producer/agent, a descendant of Sammy Glick if he’d had a kid with J.J. Hunsecker. Lee is on a mission to steal household appliances from the neighbors in the comfortable community where his mom lives.
Lee has been all over, he says, but speaks most nostalgically of the desert. He has spent some time with their estranged father there, “had adventures,” but mostly he drinks. A lot. He swigs from a Jim Beam bottle while pounding can after can of PBR. It’s hard to believe he can remain standing, let alone be semi-coherent. He interrupts Austin’s concentration, so Austin listens to Lee’s concept for a movie. It’s a ridiculous idea rooted in western mythology involving trucks pulling “goosenecks” (where livestock ride) which have horses in them. The trucks are in a chase scene then, when one runs out of gas, the drivers get on their horses and continue to chase each other into the nonexistent mountains. (I’ve seen worse, actually.)
When Saul arrives, Lee mangles his name when they meet (Mr. “Kipper”), dominates the conversation, and insists that he and Saul get together for a golf game. Not incidentally, he has just stolen a television, which he is carrying. Though Saul is clearly trying to get away and makes excuses to do so, he finally humors Lee and says he’ll call the country club. He even agrees to look at an outline for Lee’s story idea, which the brothers stay up all night working on. Austin is reluctant, but he figures typing it up (which Lee can’t do) will get Lee off his back.
Lee returns from the game carrying a set of Saul’s clubs which he tells Austin he received as an advance on the substantial cash advance Saul has promised him because he has optioned Lee’s story. Austin is dumbstruck, especially when he finds out how Lee sold the story: He won a bet with Saul and hustled him. At golf. On top of that, Saul plans to drop Austin’s story and use him to write the first draft of Lee’s. Austin is furious, begins to drink, and it’s starting to become difficult to tell the brothers apart by their behaviors, and the concept of fraternal identity is examined. From there, all hell breaks loose and mayhem ensues, involving considerable damage to an innocent typewriter and lots of toast.
Much of True West is very funny. Sam Shepard’s play has become iconic in the American canon and is catnip for actors, some real brothers (the Quaids) and some not (the famous John Malkovich-Gary Sinise production at Steppenwolf in 1982) are just two of many examples. Yet the piece itself seems a bit lightweight for all this attention. It is certainly enjoyable, and it makes statements about sibling rivalry (in this case, Mom really did like one brother best—Austin—and scares the bejesus out of the other who cowers in her presence when she shows up in the formidable person of Nancy Lewis). Mama finds her house in chaos, full of toasters (you have to be there) and testosterone.
The set is a realistic 1970s kitchen and it’s nice to see a one-set play where only a prop or two needs to be moved during the action. The set and evocative lighting are by Jim Burwinkel. Sound design, including the intermission rendition of Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly brings smiles of recognition. Credit goes to Joseph T. Pini. Scott Breihan’s costumes are especially evocative on Lee; Saul is dressed for success in his pink shirt with the tie tucked into the belt; and Mom looks like Georgia O’Keeffe in her artsy, haute hippie costume with Native American accessories.
Crowley comes to St. Louis for the second time. He has worked extensively in television and appeared in Of Mice and Men at the Rep. He is a powerful actor and inhabits Lee. McMaster doesn’t seem quite as sure of himself, but that may be the way Doug Finlayson directed him. While he is the one with the “Ivy League diploma” (as Lee repeatedly mentions) he is also the less comfortable in his own skin. Alan Knoll and Nancy Lewis in small parts (for them) turn in their usual fine performances. It’s a tight ensemble that works well together with the versatile, gifted Finlayson to provide an enjoyable evening at the theatre.
Note: If you go, pay attention to the opening recorded announcement which goes way beyond “turn off your cell phones and unwrap your hard candies” to a clever set-up for the play.
True West runs through Feb. 19. You may call 314-289-4063 or visit www.hotcitytheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT