This play does not capture Shepard's spirit.
Austin (Paul Dano) is the mild brother, a Hollywood screenwriter holed up in his mother's house and working away at his newest screenplay. Lee (Ethan Hawke) is the wild brother, a desert rat and sometimes thief, with a long history of problems.
This funny, violent play is a great one by Sam Shepard. True West is a fierce summation of some of his undying themes: The archetypal battle between blood brothers, as well as the cultural collision of good and evil, past and present.
If there's one thing a production of True West must have, it's that haunting sense that the brothers are at war with themselves. That's exactly what director James MacDonald's new Broadway production doesn't have. Hawke slinks and smolders in what is a somewhat good approximation of Lee's craziness, but there's no hint of Austin in his manic performance. And while Dano is convincing as the repressed Austin, there's no sign of his secret bad boy, not even when he's breaking into houses and stealing gaggles of toasters.
More to the point, the audience never feels any real sense of danger when the brothers trash the kitchen and go for each other's throats. When their mother returns (Marylouise Burke) from a vacation to Alaska, and surveys the wreck the two boys made of her kitchen (horribly designed by Mimi Lien), she scolds them (which we barely felt) as if they were children. A real Shepard's True West would have had the two as wild animals and not children. The poor direction of MacDonald had these two great actors contained all night long.
Many feel that True West is the best of Shepard's trilogy... Fool for Love, Buried Child, and the outside fourth play, A Lie of the Mind. True West was Sam Shepard's somewhat autobiographical story of his yin-yang. He always wanted to be good, but his hard drinking and womanizing kept him from living the life he always wanted to lead. To not have the characters clearly morph into one another is a real mistake in direction. Coupled with really bad lighting by Jane Cox added to this plays woes. Cox hit the characters at such an angle that I could not make out the actors faces, they had a fuzzy ring around their heads for most of the first act. The second act was a little bit better. The action picked up dramatically, as did the humor, and the suspense, but this show clearly never hit it's intended raw stride. The direction was to reserved for this play to ever have a chance.
When I first saw this play in 1982 at the Cherry Lane Theater, it starred John Malkovich as Lee and Randy Quaid as Austin—like Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, two very fine actors. The difference was that Gary Sinise's direction was much more raw; much more Sam Shepard. Sinise captured what the play was, or should be about, which is, suspense, the transferring of one human to another. This Shepard play should be most violent, most action packed, and most revered of all the trilogy. True West at the American Airlines Theater is a huge disappointment. Misguided direction really made this play painful to watch.