Sibling rivalry far from child's play

Review: In `True West,' it's intriguing to see how two grown brothers act in such brutal ways.

March 06, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In director Howard Shalwitz's interpretation of True West at Washington's Arena Stage, men are either violent lugs or scaredy-cat little wimps. Either way, they're a lot like little boys.

Sam Shepard's 1980 play takes place in the suburban Los Angeles boyhood home of two brothers - an Ivy League-educated screenwriter and a crude, petty thief - who meet up after five years.

There are various dramaturgical theories about the identity of these diametrically opposed brothers - for instance, that they're actually the same person (a theory reinforced by the 2000 Broadway production in which the lead actors alternated in the roles) or that they turn into each other.

Either way, under Shalwitz's intriguing but overly broad direction, the brothers have one major characteristic in common: They're emotionally underage. It's easy to picture these two in the schoolyard. Ted Koch's belly-scratching, beer-guzzling Lee (the thief) would be the playground bully, and Todd Cerveris' Austin, the bookish teacher's pet.

Cerveris' timid Austin is afraid of Koch's brutish Lee from the start. All but quaking in Koch's presence, Cerveris is constantly edging across the room, putting as much space between them as possible. And Koch takes full advantage of his character's dominance, grabbing his wimpy brother by the shirt collar and shaking him, or later, brandishing a golf club over his prone body. The kitchen isn't expansive enough for prowling Lee, but it's far too open for retreating Austin, who lacks adequate places to duck for cover.

Shepard included plenty of humor in his look at these pathetic descendants of the American West, but Shalwitz and costume designer Rosemary Ingham too frequently turn the playwright's comic jabs into cartoons. Not content to let us see Lee as a grimy slob, Arena's production goes one step further: Koch parades around with his pants unzipped and thrusts his hand in his drawers to punctuate the line: "Yer afraid I'll embarrass ya."

This comment comes up after Austin tells Lee he's expecting a visit from a movie producer to whom he's pitching a screenplay. Austin would like Lee out of the way, but Lee isn't about to pass up the opportunity to hustle a Hollywood hustler. Before the first act ends, Lee's working on a screenplay of his own.

Though Lee calls his screenplay a "true-to-life" Western, Austin sees it as nothing but a Hoppalong Cassidy tale about "grown men acting like little boys." The remark is one of several that justify depicting the brothers as overgrown children.

But Lee and Austin aren't ordinary children. At best, they're highly unstable. At worst, they're downright dangerous. The fight scenes choreographed by Brad Waller are startlingly visceral and original. Who would have thought a run-of-the-mill, harvest gold refrigerator could serve as a lethal weapon? It's a clever choice in a play in which household appliances - albeit considerably smaller ones - figure prominently in the plot.

Another interesting aspect of Shalwitz's production is that the role reversal primarily goes one way. Austin turns into Lee - right down to donning Lee's filthy raincoat and a dirty, striped T-shirt similar to the one Lee wears in the opening scenes. Lee, however, essentially remains his coarse, menacing self. In other words, the evolutionary process appears to be working in reverse.

Both of the cast's other actors seem to take their cues from Ingham's over-the-top costumes. Whether decked out in a 1970s-style brick-red suit or a brightly striped polo shirt and yellow trousers, plump David Marks depicts the movie producer as little more than a clown.

Nancy Robinette's brief turn as Lee and Austin's mother is as thin as the white gloves she wears with her pristine pants suit. Robinette's performance is the production's rare instance of understatement, and it comes at an unfortunate time. The 11th-hour contrast of the prim mother with her wild sons should be the comic fillip that shows us, one last time, how much the brothers resemble untamed children, or, to follow Shepard's metaphor, the untamed West.

Indeed, if Lee and Austin represent the epitome of rugged American manhood and the West, then a few cherished myths have been shattered - and that's precisely the point.

True West

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays and noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through April 7

Admission: $32-$49

Call: 202-488-3300

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