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True West @ Theater Artaud

Between the Coyotes and the Crickets

In "True West", the Chekov’s Gun device is not a loaded gun per se, but the two main characters themselves -- they’re both loaded guns. The whole time, you’re kept guessing which one will shoot first, and which will die first, because from the git-go, you know someone’s gotta die.

Sam Shepard’s play premiered in 1980 at San Francisco’s venerable Magic Theater, where he was playwright-in-residence and, like most of his other work, continues to enjoy prominent performances in national and international venues. A recent Broadway production of "True West" featured Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who both got Tony Award Best Actor nominations for their performances.

Decent, rational nebbish Austin, a striving Hollywood scriptwriter, and his swaggering, bullying, petty criminal lout of a brother Lee, find themselves getting in each other’s faces while looking after their mother’s generic suburban Southwestern home while she’s on vacation in Alaska. Austin’s there working on a script with which he’s hoping to close a crucial, and imminent, movie deal, and Lee immediately gets busy annoying him, picking fights, insulting him, and asking to borrow his car, all while chain-swilling Mickey’s Wide Mouths.

The two characters are on the face such polar-opposite caricatures that it’s quite a stretch, in this production at least, to imagine them as brothers. But that’s kind of the point of the play -- each is a symbol for many opposing and fundamentally irreconcilable things at once: the illusion of our lost rural heritage versus the illusion of our meaningless suburban lifestyles; trailer trash versus Ivy League; dumb physical bully brother versus smart condescending bully brother.

The exaggerated contrast between the two brothers leads one to suspect early on that things will take a strange twist, which they definitely do as soon as Saul, the producer with whom Austin is trying to close the movie deal, shows up for a meeting at the house. Saul gets railroaded by Lee, who eventually steals the deal away from Austin with a ridiculously contrived story idea for a “true modern Western,” in which two bogus cowboys chase each other across the prairie at night on their horses after their pickups run out of gas during a tornado.

As Saul, ditching Austin’s love story script for Lee’s, later explains to a hysterical Austin, “Nobody’s interested in love these days.” The tables are cruelly turned, and the professional writer gets trumped by the professional bullshit artist, who, at least momentarily, out-hustles the hustler producer. The tables turn cruelly again when Austin refuses to help his nearly illiterate brother write the script, and things get progressively worse as the brothers become increasingly crazed, drunk, and destructive as the endless sweltering night wears on.

Ronen Sberlo as Austin and Rick Scarpello as Lee fully embrace the physicality of their roles, which are fairly demanding in that regard. Scarpello embodies the most repellent qualities of his character (which are legion) with his menacing, lurking presence and his abusive, provocative taunts delivered in a well honed Generic American Trailer Park dialect. Sberlo presents a sympathetic portrait of a levelheaded, middle class yuppie whose existential angst is fueled by his brother’s provocations, but has his own demons to battle as well.

He tries hard to be a caring brother, reasoning with Lee and going along with his manipulative end game until he slowly unravels and becomes as murderous and unhinged as his evil brother. In the end there’s no resolution between the characters, or between the two twisted worlds that they represent. Only the endless struggle between opposing Dionysian and Apollonian forces, with the coyotes and the crickets playing the ostinato chorus.

This is evidently the first production of the fledgling Colibrita and Panhandlers Theater Company. It’s a bit rough around the edges: the play starts too slowly; the pacing is a bit uneven; the production design is unremarkable; there are sporadic projection problems with all the actors; and the role of Mom, though quite small, is still crucial, but as played by Mandy Canales it fails to kick the action into the next level.

However, most of these shortcomings are overcome by the performances of Sberlo and Scarpello. This is a difficult play to do, and they pull through with what I think is Shepard’s intent -- to depict the existential dilemma of the American West through the lens of raw sibling rivalry and the decaying American family. Besides, small theater in San Francisco usually has a few rough edges, that’s what I like about it. Our rich variety of small theater companies is one of our greatest civic assets.

True West by Sam Shepard
Directed by Gabrielle Gomez
Project Artaud Theater
Through August 26
Tickets: $15-20 General