There’s the West of American mythology, a place of open spaces, big dreams and limitless possibilities. Trailblazing heroes went there and discovered gold, made fortunes and invented the movie industry.
Then there’s Sam Shepard’s True West. The open spaces are gone, replaced by endless suburbia. The possibilities are mostly gone, too, but the big dreams remain.
Shepard’s play, a battle of wills between two brothers who are rival would-be screenwriters, is a favorite of audiences and theater companies, and no wonder: On one level, it’s pretty much surefire — short, punchy, full of mordant wit. The likeable actors here — Jeb Kreager as Austin, the buttoned-up brother, and Brian Osborne as Lee, the loose-cannon one, plus cameos by Joe Canuso and E. Ashley Izard — nail their laughs.
But the greatness in Shepard’s play lies in its dark side. Beneath the surface comedy is a play full of mournfulness and violence. This True West, an angry meditation on lost manhood and toxic families, is brilliant but staggeringly difficult to get right. For starters, it looks like a realistic play but isn’t — the nesting-box imagery is as close to Shepard’s poetry as it is to conventional playwriting. The audience should feel uneasy throughout, in an evening punctuated by hairpin turns and long, ominous pauses.
At Theatre Exile, everything speeds along. Someone — director Matt Pfeiffer, I assume — chose to perform the play in one act rather than two, which further downsizes it. The star performance here turns out to be Thom Weaver’s lighting design, which packs several quirky, scary surprises.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s an entertaining evening. But in terms of conquering the heights of True West, this production is about as far from it as Austin and Lee are from the Weinstein brothers.
Through Feb. 23, $35-$37, Theatre Exile at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.
First Friday Focus: Camden up close, prejudice in photography and "skate of the art" installation
+ GRAVY STUDIO & GALLERY Vice named Gabriel Angemi, a city firefighter, its favorite street...
The Way Women See It: Reviewing "The Lady From the Sea"
EgoPo Classic Theater may be Philadelphia’s most intellectually bracing company. Artistic...
Painting the Town: Artists' views on Northern Liberties' changes
There’s a sort of privilege in listening in on the conversation between Ira Upin, Jennifer Baker,...