True West by Sam Shepard. Directed by Daniel Goldstein.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Nate Corddry, Debra Jo Rupp, Paul Sparks in True West; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Corddry and Sparks; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"I donít recognize this place at all."
"Hereís an idea," said a Mickey Rooney like character: "letís put on a show with one set, four characters and no more than five costumes. How much could that cost?
"I know. Weíll put on one of those Sam Shepard plays that fit the description above. Simple. Thereíll be some anger and some laughter and some camaraderie and some family stuff, too. How much could that cost?"
Well, folks, I donít how much it costs, but the destruction of the props and set in your typical Sam Shepard play can really run you down into the ground pretty quickly and in the new production of "True West" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the costs must be skyrocketing in this down and dirty one set, four character, five costume play.
Director Daniel Goldstein has let the Shepard script dictate the levels of mess and mania here. His choreography of the action (assisted here ably by Thomas Schallís fight choreography), set in a kitchen and breakfast room of a small suburban tract house about forty miles east of Los Angeles in 1980, keeps people and props flying around the space. There is more destruction in this show than in many plays about the San Francisco earthquake. I donít know if thatís your thing; itís not mine.
The set, by Neil Patel, puts this play into the odd context - script related - of a small movie set in a huge sound stage situation in Hollywood. The connected rooms, complete with roof and ceiling units, revolves into place (getting a large hand from the theaterís staff in the balcony-they also cheer the apprentice stage-crew at the curtain call much more soundly than they do the cast of the play) within a gigantic open space, with back brick wall, a flyspace revealed behind the missing proscenium arch, with more stage lights than are ever used, large klieg-style lights and strip lights which sometimes blind the audience as they attempt to give a semblance of real, lifelike light and the unreality of a missing kitchen door through which at least three of the actors move at times. There is too much reality in the contained space and only the vague hints of film studio interiors surrounding that space.
Lighting Designer Ben Stanton needs to sit in row B through E, house right, to get a sense of how his lighting removes a major portion of his audience from even seeing the play as it reflects off the faces and bodies of ticket-buyers, let alone trying to grasp its deeper, darker meaning (too much light over there for "darker").
Clearly the metaphor of the set and lights reflects an aspect of the play, the writing of a film script. It seems to me that the bizarre reality of the play is destroyed by the visual attempt to put it into the context of the production.
Two brothers taunt one another in their motherís kitchen while she cruises the coast of Alaska. One is a drifter, one is a screenwriter. They fight over a story that the drifter sells to the other oneís agent by using his bizarre sexual appeal to sway the third man. The screenwriter, house-sitting, neglects his responsibilities once he loses his own contract to his brotherís and together the two of them destroy the home that Mom comes back to a few days earlier than expected.
Nate Corddry is Austin, the writer, the good son who gives up wife, family and self-respect to steal toasters and to try to live his wastrel brotherís life. Corddry gives a wonderful performance even when the written words he spouts make no sense for him at all. His transition from good to gonif (Yiddish for scoundrel) is either induced by too much liquor or by an accident of Shepardís for there is no logical, visible transition here and the fault is in the writing, not the acting or direction. Goldstein tries misdirection with a golf club and a pile of toast. It doesnít work - and Iím sure theyíre both in the script as well.
As his brother Lee, Paul Sparks turns tables (literally), upsets apple carts (figuratively) and turns gold back into dross (actually). Anything he touches becomes garbage. Lee is a veritable whirlwind of damage come to call. He also has a drawl that seems not to belong in this family and that impedes lines, that keeps us from understanding about twenty-five percent of what he is saying. Still the overall effect of his performance is overwhelming and exhausting.
Stephen Kunken plays Saul Kimmer, the agent who switches his loyalty from one brother (Austin) to the other (Lee). His 1980s homosexual is a bit too obvious and when Lee capitalizes on it Kunken takes the fatal step into period parody. He is helped by a suit that no self-respecting 1980s homosexual would have been caught dead wearing, so the reality of the other costumes designed by Linda Cho, takes a big step backward. I wouldnít want to assume that author Shepard has it in for gays, but the way Saul and Lee carry on it would seem that a statement of some sort (disgust, perhaps) is clearly showing through in the writing here.
Finally, at the end of two scenes during which the environment of home becomes a decimated vision of the collapse of western civilization, Debra Jo Rupp, as Mom, appears. If ever an actor was destined to almost save a production, it is Ms. Rupp. As she has often done before, she brings onto the stage a presence that pleases and surprises, shocks and irritates, all at the same time. Dressed in simple shoes, glasses and a red coat, she is the image of the unhappy traveler wearily approaching the sanctity of place. Ruppís comedy timing is such a welcome relief here, even as she stands by watching one son criminally attack the other. Her exit comes too soon, and her entrance comes to late.
The play ends where it begins, with a visual sense of threat. The sense has increased incrementally, however, and for my part, I couldnít have cared less where these two brothers were headed next. I was just glad that they would be doing it, going there, whatever, without me having to watch one more moment of their tiresome game. The concept of a simple play has been exhausted calamitously and Mickey Rooney is spinning in his well-earned grave.
True West plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festivalís main stage in the Ď62 Center for Theater and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, through July 26. For tickets and schedules contact the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.