Review of True West, starring Ethan Hawke & Paul Dano, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    January 31, 2019
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    There are times when I feel that I should tag my posts "The Minority Review". After listening to the audience hooting and hollering their approval for Roundabout Theatre Company's production of True West, that is exactly where I am positioned. I have no idea what play the audience saw - perhaps it was just one or two steps over in a different dimension. That would explain it.

    This sad production did teach me one thing - Sam Shepard's writing is like witnessing the crafting of a fishing net. With each sentence, the hook and the twine are slipped into an adjoining bit, until the finished product is, well, finished. The brothers, Lee (Ethan Hawke) and Austin (Paul Dano) are hooked into one another. The exact nugget of this connection is not important, which is part of the reason we are intrigued. This play is like watching a street fight slowly unfold. The two men jab and parry, stalk, slam and inflict some serious damage on one another. The time appears to be late 1970's. Lee is back in town after living as a grifter out in the desert. Austin is staying at their mother's place - a Southern California suburb East of L.A. while he puts the finishing touches on a screen writing reel and house sits while mom (Marylouise Burke) is on vacation.

    It takes about a nanosecond to realize that Lee likes to pull the wings off of flies, and most likely his first taste of this was experimenting on his little brother. Austin has grown in the years since and fancies himself a responsible family man, though what he actually does to take care of his family remains a mystery. Lee is in town because he has run out of houses to rob, and he could use a bath from the looks of him.

    That's it. That is all you need to know. This is combat. The two actors take it from here.

    This is where this play slides off the rails. Paul Dano is not up to the task of taking on his character as well as defending himself against the likes of Ethan Hawke. Hawke is more capable and takes command of everything pretty much from the get go. The imbalance is astonishing. Nothing that Dano does in the first act is believable. He indicates and flummoxes up a storm - but nothing sticks. He picks up speed in the second act, but by that time the train has left the station. Hawke by contrast is like a trapeze performer looking to dazzle. For some reason, he pulls out mannerisms of John Malkovich, which is unfortunate and undermines his work. Gary Wilmes as Saul Kimmer (movie producer) seems lost. What is a critical dividing line for the brothers needs to be spelled out when it should be slid like a razor. Marylouise Burke has a limited time on stage, and her critical view point is absent as she stands reciting lines and not connecting with her sons or her surroundings.

    The audience loved the manly thrashing and chasing (literally) - hooting and cheering as the brothers took on each other as well as their mother's house. It occurred to me that these people could be actual descendants of the folks who cheered on the lions back at the Coliseum.

    People will go to see Ethan Hawke, and there are moments when he does not disappoint. He is an actor who loves adventure, and that commitment is infectious. You can feel him wandering around inside Lee like a man who has not eaten in about a week. He will try anything - and that puts us on notice.

    As for the rest - it was all Sturm und Drang, all "storm and drive" without destination or shelter. Ye olde sound and fury signifying nada. In a word, boring.


    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Sam Shepard’s wild West just got a lot scarier. I’m talking about that shadowy, shifting desertscape occupied so disharmoniously by the two brothers of Shepard’s 1980 masterwork, True West, which has been given a ripping revival by James Macdonald at the American Airlines Theater. As embodied by a brilliant Ethan Hawke, in full-menace mode, and a tightly wired Paul Dano, everyday sibling rivalry has seldom felt this ominous."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "When Ethan Hawke relieving himself onto a houseplant becomes one of the most noteworthy moments in a Broadway show, it’s safe to say it’s been a soggy night of theater. That’s what awaits at this intermittently involving, often tedious take on True West, Sam Shepard’s much-admired 1980 dark comedy of savage sibling rivalry and role reversal."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Post

    "There is a lot of humor built into the conflict between the amoral, desperate, confidently doltish Lee and the exasperated, ineffectual Austin, but there is horror, too, as the play’s red and blue factions bleed into each other, yielding the purple of an unhealed bruise."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Shepard's enigmatic play defies easy interpretation, with its vague themes of sibling rivalry, the mythos of the American West and the thin line between civilization and anarchy never truly coming into focus. But it works marvelously as a mood piece, which for several reasons this production only partially succeeds in capturing. The expansive American Airlines Theatre isn't intimate enough to provide the necessary air of claustrophobia; the slack pacing of Act 1 allows boredom to settle in; and Hawke, as good as he is, is a bit too studied in his affect. He certainly tries hard, but you never get the sense of true danger that his character is supposed to emit."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "If there’s one thing a production of True West must have, it’s that haunting sense of the two brothers being one person at war with himself. That’s exactly what director James Macdonald’s new Broadway production doesn’t have. Hawke seethes and smolders in a thrilling approximation of Lee’s craziness, but there’s no hint of Austin in his manic performance. And while Dano is completely convincing as the repressed Austin, there’s no sign of his secret bad boy, not even when he’s breaking into houses and stealing toasters."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety