Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Plays of the 00s: True West

This always happens in June: I feel glum about the mediocrity of what's spilling out of Hollywood, and, post-Tony Awards, I start pining for more theater in my life. Crabby and contrarian to the last, I still prefer reading plays to seeing them: the possibilities seem so much more endless, simultaneously multiple, while you're staging the script in your mind, mouthing and timing different line-readings as you go. They're also incredibly commute-friendly. 45 minutes northbound in the morning, 45 southbound in the evening, and you've absorbed a whole tale, a whole style and imaginative orientation.

As a long lead, then, on the deluge of "Best of the 00s" features that are bound to swell toward the end of the year, I've decided to orient my play-reading by revisiting as many texts as I can that were honored with major critics' prizes and nominations during the past decade: Tonys, Drama Desks, Obies, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, and, across the pond, Evening Standard and Olivier Awards. I am also following some inside tracks when I can to overlooked gems from each year, especially well-regarded works that push against the daunting whiteness and conservative theatricality that often prevails on Broadway and (I'm guessing?) the bulk of the West End. I'm always on the hunt for contemporary material to teach, so this spelunking serves a pedagogical purpose, too. Mind you, I'm giving myself plenty of time and not committing to any particular pace—which will, uh, hardly surprise my regular readers.

Given all that preface, it's both anomalous and strangely necessary to start with True West, a play first performed in San Francisco in 1980 but invisible on Broadway for 20 years. Starring the then-upwardly mobile Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who famously alternated the leading roles, this production, guided by recent Tony magnet Matthew Warchus, earned True West a Best Play nomination in 2000. I'm not as big a Shepard nut as some people; anyone that prolific is bound to swing unpredictably above and below par. But True West is a pretty dazzling experience even on the page. I'm delighted to see a mordant statement about outer-Hollywood desperation that bends into unsettling opacities instead of cheap punchlines or dowdy, careworn pessimism. By the end of the play, Austin and Lee, the aspiring screenwriter and the restless gate-crasher, are wading through an indoor pond made of stolen toasters and smashed typewriters and smushed bread, and Shepard's text has walked a fine line between plausibly psychologized escalation and menacingly heightened theatricality to carry us into these weird tableaus. An Author's Note in the script disavowing exaggeration and insisting on psychological realism stands weirdly at odds with the strange conceits built into the stage directions (an Astroturf floor, a strictly red-and-white costume aesthetic for a key character), and you can imagine the actors having a field day in the best sense, a real calisthenic workout, honoring Shepard's edict for realism while toying with all of the script's suggestions of symbolism, gestalt, and stylization.

It's also a pleasure to see men, rather than women, cast in a scenario about uncanny slippages and overlaps of identity. The convincingly fraught fraternal rivalry between Austin and Lee holds down the "realism" angle while the metaphysical mysteries of the play keep tugging it into allegory and experiment. I didn't quite buy a pivotal monologue about chop suey and false teeth, but you could easily stage the piece such that you don't have to believe this story outright; you also have the option of making Lee's harebrained script ideas truly harebrained or Manny Farber-ishly gripping, and either alternative would excitingly redraw the flexible emotional lines of the script. One thing I wouldn't do is tamper a bit with the surprising, haunting understatement with which a semi-surprising character enters, hovers, and exits in the last scene. I was expecting some fireworks or revelations, maybe even a Guignol tableau à la Buried Child, but the cool, distracted indifference of this character is both funnier and scarier than more obvious dramatics could have been.

True West, like a lot of Shepard I've read, reads as rough-hewn and frontier-friendly Pinter, in structure and theme if not in language, but the play has its own dramatic, plastic, and verbal identity, and its occasionally blunt figures turn out to be more subtle and shiftable than they seem. How much of what's coming can Austin predict from the outset? Is a fourth character's unexpected partiality to Lee a reality or a false rumor, and is it earnest or bullied? Certainly Austin speaks more often in clichés than Lee does, and yet Lee is (or could be) the more familiar archetype of the id-driven lout. Where can we go with those observations? Are these men really "becoming" each other, in reviewer-lingo, by the end of the piece, or are we watching a single evening of recreational dabbling in each other's habits and life-projects? What backstory actually precedes what we see? What will possibly happen after? What does all this have to do with the vanished West, with America, or are those allegorical pressures as highfalutin and hollowly compulsory as the storytelling cheats that Austin and Lee haggle over in their script? True West manages the neat trick of carving out a strange, severe, and specific niche of its own while generously furnishing its interpreters, on the stage or on the page, with a wide and genuinely thought-provoking series of unresolved questions and viable possibilities. Shepard didn't win the Tony, and if it turns out he didn't deserve to, that means at least two great plays were Tony-nominated in 2000.

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