Yo! Someone gimme a break! I mean a real break – an intermission. I’m sitting here looking at the script of Sam Shepard’s “True West” (if you like the actor-playwright’s work, it’s in a nifty collection called “Seven Plays”) and what he wants is as clear as bold-faced ink on the paper. It says “ACT TWO.”
Why did Shepard break his sharp play about sibling rivalry (runtime: 100 minutes) into two acts? Because after intermission, the second part is distinctly different from the first. That’s when these two grim brothers – one an acute sibling rival and the other, much more latent in his jealousy – change character. Each begins to take on a new ego – that of the other. Neither wears it well.
A lot of older American three-act plays are produced nowadays without at least one of the two called-for intermissions, and something almost always gets lost in the process of jamming the acts together. On the other hand, if Elizabethan work were presented in all of its separate acts, often numbering five, modern audiences wouldn’t be too happy. Four intermissions? Overkill.
Sam Shepard wrote “True West” in 1980 and by that time, plays in five acts were long gone and two-act works were more the fashion than three-act plays. So it befuddles me that Theatre Exile, in its current production of “True West,” runs it as a simple one-act, taking away much of the surprise of Act Two. Exile slips right into the second part, the shifting behavior of these brothers seems suddenly disjointed, and the play forfeits some of its considerable oomph.
Matters are made worse by Shepard himself, who doesn’t give us much of a hint to explain shifting motivations as the play reaches the end of what’s supposed to be the second act. But I’ll leave that alone, because Shepard employs some surprises I won’t spoil.
“True West” is generally billed as a dark comedy and although the dark part works, calling it a comedy is false advertising. It’s well crafted, however you describe it. Because one of the brothers (played by Brian Osborne) is a volatile, heavy-drinking menace and a petty thief, Shepard can make the untrustworthy character behave without much justification or reason. And because the other brother (Jeb Kreager) is a solid guy – a successful screenwriter with an Ivy League education and a Hollywood life — we can expect him to at least stand up to his brother’s whims, offering a balance. Still, they are rivals. What one brother might trade for stability, the other might swap for a sense of liberation.
Both Osborne and Kreager deliver these characters well; they needn’t build them as “True West” unfolds because they come to us fully bloomed from the start. The two ledes have the solid backup of E. Ashley Izard, who plays the brothers’ clueless mom, and Joe Canuso, Theatre Exile’s founding artistic director. He plays a Hollywood deal-maker.
The production, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, is replete with the necessary Shepard-isms: the angry tossing of plates and flatware and tablecloths around the stage (a ’50s interior dining-room/kitchen set with an appropriate linoleum floor, by Matt Saunders), the drunkenness, the nasty sensibility and the impulsivity, too. What it lacks is what’s supposed to be a turning point after the intermission.
And, yes, this “True West” clearly poses the basic questions: Do you really want to go where the grass looks greener and just as important, do you really want the people from there to invade your own grass? At Theatre Exile, those questions emanate as much from a quirky portrait of brotherhood as they do from quirky brothers.
“True West,” produced by Theatre Exile, runs through Feb. 23 at Plays & Players Theatre, on Delancey Street between 17th and 18th Streets. 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.