When it comes to famous brothers, history is replete with dynamic duos — from Cain and Abel to the murderous Menendez pair, and from the Bushes to the Kochs. But in contemporary theater, outside of Biff and Happy, the most fascinating set of brothers is likely found in True West by Sam Shepard.
Now at convergence-continuum theater, Austin and Lee are SoCal bros who are polar opposites. But they share a familial heritage and are saddled with mirror-image genomes that lead them into a fascinating pas de deux in this absorbing script.
The production is con-con's annual "modern classic" offering, mixed into their usual menu of edgy off-Broadway (and off-off-off-Broadway) fare. It's a tradition that is to be saluted, since it revives plays that local audiences would have virtually no chance of seeing live, such as last year's The Boys in the Band.
Even though there are weaknesses in the playing of this piece, the brilliance of Shepard's concept, and the combustible energy of his words, comes through loud and strong.
Austin is a professional screenwriter who is house-watching for his mom, who is vacationing in Alaska. He's typing away on his current project as his intimidating wastrel brother, Lee, hovers around him, interrupting Austin at every turn.
This is particularly irritating to Austin, since he is preparing to meet with Saul, a Hollywood producer who is coming over to discuss Austin's current work. Learning this, Lee arranges to butt into their conversation, presenting his own fractured idea for a movie to Saul.
From that point forward, nothing progresses as you might expect. There are multiple references to the brothers' dad, who is in deep debt and living "out in the desert." That's a place where volatile Lee also adjourns to when he needs to shake the constraints of civilization. In contrast, Austin dutifully rides the freeways and pounds out his scripts, lashed to his job like Ahab rather than creating freely as an artist.
As the play progresses, Shepard plucks all these strings with masterful nuance — and surprising visceral immediacy — until the ideas of personal freedom, sibling rivalry, and art vs. commerce all coalesce.
It is a challenging piece to perform, and in this task, the con-con crew is only partially successful. The pace and soul of the play is modulated by Lee, and in that role Cliff Bailey does what he does quite well. Trouble is, he doesn't do nearly enough.
Exerting a powerful presence and sporting a Grizzly Adams beard, Bailey is physically threatening. But all his bluster is on the surface as he continually meanders around the small stage. Bailey doesn't wield his character's control of the scenes to shape moments while fully torturing and dominating Austin and Saul.
As Austin, Geoffrey Hoffman is solid throughout and is actually quite funny as Austin unravels towards the end. But since he has less to play off than he might, we never quite see the full transformation of Austin in its most profound dimensions.
A sleek, gold-chained Robert Hawkes adds some sleazy La-La-land glitz as Saul. But in the smallest role, Lucy Bredeson-Smith almost steals the show as Mom. When Bredeson-Smith enters, you know her character in full without her ever saying a word. When she does speak, you feel decades of disappointment spill out as she observes her progeny and what they have wrought in her tidy house.
Director Clyde Simon doesn't back off the brashness of the script, although some melodramatic lighting touches are elbow-in-the-ribs obvious. A more individualized, risk-taking, quirky Lee would add contour to this presentation. But there are enough ridges and peaks remaining to keep any audience engaged.
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