I feel at this point I’ve seen a lot of people in Sam Shepard‘s great play, “True West.” John Malkovich, Randy Quaid, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and so on. The latter switched roles of the brothers at different performances. We’ve been there, and done that.
So I’m happy to report that Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano‘s new take on the material felt natural from the moment they started speaking. Hawke and Dano, each accomplished movie actors/directors, and Hawke, with a lot of theatrical experience, simply fill the roles of crazy outlaw Lee and his staid screenplay writer brother Austin like hands in old gloves. They just fit, and you know it from the beginning.
British director James McDonald has given the guys a lot to do in this Roundabout Theater production at the American Airlines Theater. The people outside on West 43rd St. (who can sometimes be heard blissfully yelling like real New Yorkers do) would probably be surprised how muscular “True West” is under McDonald’s direction. The brothers pretty much wreck their mother’s sunny California kitchen as they wrestle physically and spiritually. By the time they’re done, their drawers are literally on the floor.
Hawke, as Lee, appears to be menacing Austin, the brother he hasn’t seen in five years. It’s clear from the start Lee is a burglar, lives off the grid, and has so sense of community. Austin has a family “up north” (San Francisco, maybe) but he’s using mom’s house while she’s away in Alaska in vacation. He’s pitching a screenplay to an agent/producer named Saul. Lee’s arrival throws his work and his life into peril.
That’s it, on the face of it. “True West” follows E.M. Forster’s ‘hourglass’ scheme in which you take two characters who are polar opposites and by the end they’ve traded personalities. Watching Paul Dano disintegrate into a derelict is too much fun. And Ethan Hawke reigning himself in from a walking crime scene and creator of mayhem to a “serious writer” equals Dano if not more. We start to see they more alike than either thought or we could have guessed. The entrance of their flighty mother (Marylouise Burke) late in the Second Act turns what seemed dire into surreal.
Lots of stars in the audience last night, most especially Jessica Lange, who loved the show written by her beloved, departed ex, Shepard. Also, Jake Gyllenhaal brought his sister, actress Maggie; Jake starred last year in Dano’s movie “Wildlife.” Friends like Josh Hamilton (so good as the dad in “Eighth Grade”) and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman lent their support as well as Bryan Lourd and Bruce Bozzi. The great Celia Weston was also on hand; she played the mom to Hoffman and Reilly in that production. Famed agent Johnnie Planco and realtor wife Lois were there as well. At the after-party at Brasserie 8 1/2 we ran into Tony winner Alex Sharp, who will star in the untitled “Game of Thrones” prequel for HBO. I tried to pry info out of him. He said, very nicely, “Do you know how many papers I signed swearing me to secrecy?”
“True West” runs through mid March. My guess is it will sell out this morning very quickly. If it does, maybe Roundabout can extend. These guys are headed to the Tony Awards.