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True West — Theatre Exile at Plays & Players

True West interiorLights and music punctuate the mood and level of tension as Sam Shepard’s sibling duel, “True West,” progresses in Matt Pfeiffer’s slyly engaging production for Theatre Exile.

       Easy tones that immediately suggest the American west give way to jangly, shattering discord in Christopher Colucci’s telling score that meanders in stages from the Morricone-like clip-clop of Marlboro country to the nerve-shredding tones of Igor Stravinsky. Bright fluorescent glare, more stark and revealing after sharp, sudden, complete blackouts, floods the Plays & Players stage until Thom Weaver begins to add shadows and use concentrated streams of white, almost like an interrogation lamp, to  accentuate key sequences. Pfeiffer regulates “True West’s” tone in a way that adds texture to Shepard’s dark, tense, incendiary comedy, acted in a measured pace that blends well with Colucci’s music and Weaver’s lighting by Jeb Kreager and Brian Osborne as the diametrically opposite brothers.

      Mothers for centuries have reported than no two children are alike, no matter how identical their biology and upbringing. In Sam Shepard’s world, much is extreme, and it doesn’t appear that any two people could have less in common than Austin and Lee, the sons of a wastrel who drinks his time away in a mountain cabin and a stereotypical woman who sees her boys fighting and doesn’t stop them but tells them to take their scuffle outside so as not to mess up the house.

      Austin is an accomplished screenwriter with an Ivy League education and a wife and children in Northern California. He is organized and orderly. He uses a dish. He washes the dish. He crumples paper. It lands in a trash can instead of the floor. Everything about him is neat and routine. Even his writing seem less creative than businesslike, more from the head than the heart and commercially formulaic.

      Austin has come to his childhood home, his mother’s house near the foothills of L.A.’s San Gabriel mountains, to finish a treatment for a movie script and to be in position to meet with a Hollywood mogul who can bring his work to theaters. He says on several occasions that selling this screenplay is critical for career and financial reasons. He has been pitching to one particular producer for several months and may on the brink of clinching a deal.

       From the way, costumer Alison Roberts has dressed Kreager’s Austin, you can see he is cultured without being sophisticated, disciplined without being flashy or artistic. He doesn’t have the style or polish you might expect from an Ivy Leaguer who works in the film industry. Kreager keeps Austin methodical, workaday. He’s a guy who makes up stories and plugs words. He is diligent, pragmatic, and professional, a guy rooted in work and taking it seriously. You don’t get a sense of fun or adventure or even writer’s whimsy from Austin. He’s civilized and domesticated, even while in retreat at his Mom’s.

       Lee takes more after his Dad. His life is random and hardscrabble. While Austin is inured to home life, Lee is feral. He has lived in the Mojave Desert on his for months, having no particular shelter and foraging for what he needed, often by breaking and entering. Lee can approach without being heard and steal without being caught. He swills beer from cans he later crushes. He peppers his language with colorful phrases, often blue. He roams around a room like a caged animal, never standing still for long and always observing everything that is happening.

      Lee has the instincts of a survivor. He is a natural man, totally uncultured and undomesticated, the kind of guy Shepard revels in creating, one who not only lives by his wits but is cunning as he goes about his slapdash existence. Lee is the roamer, the scrambler, the guy who goes from mud flat to sand dune in a dusty vehicle that is always one piston from breaking down.  If Austin is the figure of the general Westerner who makes his living is a larger society and has sufficient food, a roof over his head, and money left over for amenities, Lee is a prototypical American Westerner of a kind, someone whose wardrobe is a well-worn white T-shirt and jeans which he dons, without much washing, in honky-tonk bars while drifting across the deserts, mountains, and plains of the dry, dry west from Texas to California. He is the desperado The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt sing about in Glenn Frey and Don Henley’s famous tune, only wilder and less sympathetic. It might be too late for Lee to let someone love him, as Frey and Henley warn.

      “True West” shows the clash of these brothers. While showing their opposite natures, Shepard and Pfeiffer seize on several aspects of fraternity, from rivalry to shared memory. Austin and Lee may be different, but they come from the same DNA. In addition to some common recollections and experiences, they each have a nimble brain. Austin may be more simple, calm, and sarcastic in his expression, but Lee has his own gift with words and can be a wily, challenging adversary.

      Austin and Lee reunite after years when the latter breaks into their mother’s house where Austin is finishing his treatment and preparing to present it to a successful producer who reeks of all the Hollywood trappings and palaver Austin doesn’t show.

      Lee is, to say the least, a disruption. He enters like a thief and behaves like an unruly child with a large gripe to settle.

      While Lee feigns pleasure at seeing his brother, Austin is wary. He knows no good can come of Lee’s presence and constantly thinks how he can rid of him while fielding Lee’s accusations, recriminations, and tales of his time prowling the desert like a human coyote, preying on the unsuspecting residents near the Mojave to keep body and soul, such at it is, together.

       Lee’s story is interesting, and he brings tension and life to “True West’s” set, a a rather dowdy but respectable kitchen in a rather ordinary suburban L.A. ranch house. While providing that spark, he can also be as irritating to the audience as he is to Austin. Lee is a ball of want. He has his brother’s attention, and he intends to make the most of it, if only to see if he can cadge something of his choosing, like the use of Austin’s car, or get a rise from Austin that will lead to the confrontation we know has to come. Part of the pleasure of watching “True West” is guessing when the dam will finally blow, and Austin will go from tolerating most of the nonsense Lee can dish out to reacting to with the temper Kreager skillfully holds back but lets you know is there, especially because Lee looks ready to lash out and turn matters physical at the slightest provocation, possibly without taking into account that, at least in Exile production., Kreager has a distinct weight advantage on the tall but wiry Osborne.

      Kreager is a model of calm. He answers Lee’s taunts and keeps him a bay, but he remains in control. If Lee strews the  beer cans he drinks from serially around tables, floors, and other surfaces, Kreager’s Austin picks them up in stride and without comment about the slob in his midst. Anything Kreager does in the kitchen, from making coffee to, under different circumstances, making toast is performed with a deft ease. Austin’s cleaning up is as natural and workmanlike as his writing. It’s good to see. Most actors play at domestic ease. Kreager looks as if he, and therefore Austin, is at home  in a kitchen.

      Lee is all nerves. Some muscle is always twitching or moving as Osborne lopes around the kitchen as if circling Kreager to find the right angle to go in for at least a mental kill. Osborne is always poised to pounce, on the tip of his toes and mildly menacing. You expect violence from him even though he doesn’t threaten any except in a sibling  tiff about who could take whom in a fight.

      To their credit, Kreager and Osborne keep the opening scenes, the ones introduced by standard music of the west and ultra-bright lighting, chesslike enough to keep Lee’s attempts to get on his brother’s good side in spite of the tension he causes, and Austin’s mocking resistance to any charm his brother tries to muster, entertaining and without cliché.

       Of course, matters escalate. Rivalry causes each brother to boast that he can do everything the other one can, meaning Lee says he can write a screenplay, and Austin says he can break into houses and pilfer small appliances and also that he could survive in the desert if he had to, albeit according to things he learned in a Boy Scout manual as opposed to Lee’s  more innate gifts for getting along in the wild.

       Things come to a head over plot outlines each brother composes and presents to the big-time movie producer played with dashing duplicity by Joe Canuso.  As with everything else that happens, Austin’s script is in proper form and has some considered thought behind it. Lee’s sounds like something he lived and bears a great resemblance to the 1971 movie for television that earned Steven Spielberg some of his first major attention, “Duel,” which was about a mysterious trucker chasing an L.A. businessman across a dusty California desert and starred Dennis Weaver.

     In the process of competing with and trying to one-up each other, barbs fly, each brother becomes  frazzled, and mayhem accelerates.

       Pfeiffer paces the Theatre Exile production so it becomes richer and more entertaining as it goes along. As intensity mounts, Exile’s “True West” becomes more dramatic and more comic at the same time. Badinage becomes more pointed. The feelings of both brothers are more deep-seated. Events are real and chocked with grimness and gravity, but they have a jokey quality to them that simultaneously undercuts and increases the fear you have for the characters. Lee and Austin are not destined to be in each other’s lives with harmony. They were not friends or buddies during their childhood, and they’re not suited to be in each other’s company long as adults. Kreager and Osborne revel in the pandemonium. Kreager, in particular, becomes less inhibited and shows sides of Austin and colors to his character we haven’t seen and don’t suspect. Maybe Austin and Lee are closer  in their response to life than Shepard or Pfeiffer led us to believe.

     “True West” is a cat-and-mouse game that forces both of its principal characters to set traps and see what they will trigger. It is about two brothers and touches on much that involves being a sibling. It is also about two kinds of people, two Americas, the one that is conventional, sophisticated, materialistic, and orderly and the one in which guys can ramble through the deserts and mountains needing a vehicle of any size, vintage, or condition, a steady supply of beer, and the names of a few women. It contrasts someone who has a compass and follows it with strictness with someone who is aimless but can be more intimidating and capable, perhaps because he has less to risk. Someone like Lee, who has nothing, has nothing to lose yet takes great joy and pride in seeing what he can win from someone who half wants to appease him and half wants to get rid of him, the appeasement being a ploy to accelerate the rascal’s departure.

      Jeb Kreager is so steady and ordinary when we first meet Austin, it’s hard to believe he’s ever seen a movie let alone that he creates the stories that would interest anyone. Austin is neat and methodical in everything he does. Even given that “True West” in set in the ’70s and Alison Roberts opts for a period look, Austin’s clothes and choice for how he wears his hair have no style. Writers are not known for their sartorial splendor, but Austin dresses as if he was a TV ad suburbanite who thinks more about keeping his lawn green that about plot lines and character conflict.

     It’s in Austin’s language and Kreager’s delivery that we see the person underneath. He shows his education and his ability to best Lee by using words and ideas he doesn’t understand, but he also shows venom that lets you know that however reasonable he looks and however sentimental he may momentarily become, he wants Lee gone and out of his life, forever if possible.

      When Kreager’s Austin becomes volatile, there’s a motive. Even his cause for anger is reasonable. His behavior may not be.

      Brian Osborne is aces an taunting and teasing. He uses the approach of the bully who is pretending to be the needy victim. Within Lee’s alleged simplicity there is a cunning negotiator who knows what topics to bring up, what memories to parlay into guilt, and how to rattle Austin even when Austin seems resistant to his deviltry.

       Osborne has the stance and reflexes of a desert cat. There’s something untamed about him. He also exudes a macho denigration of everything the relatively effete Austin represents with his degree and success.

       Osborne shows Lee’s joy when he pulls a coup that shows he is superior to Austin as a tactician and, perhaps, in other ways that grate Austin. He stages his victories naturally. The audience realizes his guile, but Osborne usually has Lee act innocent as if he engineered events nonchalantly until he has a chance to get Austin alone and rub it in.

       Kreager and Osborne play their characters’ game well, and Pfeiffer, with Colucci and Weaver as accomplices, allows Shepard’s play to build from one level of chaos to the next. Pfeiffer’s is a clever, well-judged production.

       E. Ashley Izard adds comedy to some of the most fraught sequences of “True West” by making an appearance as Austin and Lee’s mother, returning home from a vacation to Alaska ahead of schedule, and giving insight about how her boys got to be the boys they are. Izard’s Mom admonishes without taking action and makes choices that give the impression Austin and Lee were on their own to raise themselves more than being nurtured or trained to take one course or the other. What we hear about the boys’ father reinforces that idea.

       Because “True West” is set in the ’70s, set designer Matt Saunders has the opportunity to use several objects that were standard, familiar parts of just about every home 40 years ago but are obsolete or anachronistic now. For instance, Austin does his writing on a typewriter, and not an electric one either. The telephone in the boys’ mother’s house is a rotary model, goldenrod in hue, that hangs on the kitchen wall. The yellow of the telephone matches the general color of the old-fashioned kitchen with its sets of plastic dishes for daily mails and good china on display as decoration.

     “True West” runs through Sunday, February 23 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. It is produced by Theatre Exile. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 7 p.m. Thursday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or going online to www.theatreexile,org.

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