There’s the west of American Mythology, a place of open spaces, big dreams, and limitless possibilities. Trail-blazing heroes came there and discovered gold, made fortunes, invented the movie industry.
Then there’s Shepard’s True West. The open spaces are gone, replaced by endless suburbia. The possibilities are mostly gone, too. But the big dreams remain, even if the dreamers themselves seem puny.
Shepard’s play, a battle of wills between two brothers who are rival would-be screenwriters, is a favorite of audiences and theatre companies, and no wonder: On one level, it’s pretty much sure-fire – 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 Izzard – 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 it isn’t – the nesting box imagery is as close to Shepard’s poetry as it is to conventional playwrighting. 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 is far from it as Austin and Lee are from the Weinstein Brothers.
Through Feb. 23, Theatre Exile at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancy St., 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org