British classical actors sometimes alternated in Shakespearean roles, and one wanted to see, say, Gielgud and Olivier as both Romeo and Mercutio. But with all due respect, that is not quite the same as watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternate as Austin and Lee, the warring brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West. Not unless you are part of that youthquake that grooved on them in such trashy movies as Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
True West is an adroitly constructed comedy with serious overtones that are somewhat downplayed in Matthew Warchus’s otherwise mostly nifty production, even as, offstage, the comic crickets drown out the ominous coyotes. The problem is that you cannot feel much for these brothers, alternately bums and screenwriters, comic bumblers or threatening brutes. It helps if you greatly care about whether the true West is dragging out a decaying existence or was always only a myth. Or if, perhaps having siblings of your own, their jockeying for power or morphing into each other seems particularly significant.
Still, Shepard’s is a canny blend of subversive comedy and total gross-out, as the ever more embattled brothers turn Mom’s apartment, while Mom is on Alaskan holiday, into a shambles. The place is littered with squashed beer cans; tossed-about cutlery, crockery, and furniture; a smashed typewriter and uprooted phone; and dead plants. There are comic-horrific anecdotes about their alcoholic father whom the boys sometimes visit, and references to Lee’s wild life in the desert, his vicious pit bull, a lady botanist, and the TV sets Lee steals from people’s homes. We see both brothers sucking up to a sleazy Hollywood producer, for whom the college-educated Austin is developing a love story, stuff that apparently no longer sells, and the semi-literate Lee touts a supposedly true-life Western, for which three studios are promptly vying.
There are nice sight gags, such as an infestation of stolen toasters spewing out toast that gets lovingly buttered by Austin and savagely scattered and trampled by Lee. That sort of thing. Some of it is creepily funny, but the literally or figuratively juvenile audiences I attended with twice laughed frenetically at even such lines as “All I want to do is borrow your car.” Hoffman and Reilly squeeze all the legitimate, and many illegitimate, laughs out of the text. Reilly is equally sound in both roles, with Hoffman too broadly outrageous as Lee and a mite overfussy as Austin.
Robert LuPone is perfect as the producer (an easy target), but Celia Weston – too young, too inaudible, too blah – makes nothing of Mom, as much the director’s as her own fault. There is trenchant lighting by Brian MacDevitt, apt décor and costuming by Rob Howell, and garish, overloud music by Claire van Kempen. One visit to True West can be guardedly recommended; two might be more enriching for the producers than for viewers.