Sam Shepard’s True West shows us a world in which masculinity is not only in crisis, but is a crisis unto itself. When we first see estranged brothers Lee (Ethan Hawke) and Austin (Paul Dano) awkwardly reunite in their mother’s kitchen in the Broadway revival premiering this week, they both seem so whole that we can fit them into boxes before they even open their mouths. Lee stands with a louche, drunken swagger; Austin sits, a buttoned-up screenwriter in a button-down shirt, trying to work at a typewriter. The difference between them is the difference between Lee’s drink order (beer, lukewarm) and Austin’s (coffee, black), the difference between a feral survivor and a Hollywood player, the difference between the desert and the city of Los Angeles, which it surrounds.
Nothing is so simple, however. Both Lee and Austin are dissatisfied with the roles manhood has given them. Austin secretly loathes his staid, upstanding life and the sense of dislocation it has brought upon him, and yearns for Lee’s life of desert drifting and petty theft. Lee wants to be a screenwriter, and manages to beat Austin out for a lucrative deal with a producer. Lee’s description of his neo-Western screenplay’s central conflict doubles as a description of the brothers: two men, chasing each other, scared out of their wits. “And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”
A play by a less interesting writer would Freaky Friday the two men, leading each to find in the other’s life what he lacks. But the key to True West’s brilliance lies in how inadequate both visions of manhood are. It isn’t that Austin needs to go into the woods and beat a drum to rediscover himself. Nor is it possible for Lee to be tamed into a respectable life. Even if he could be, that life, as described by Austin, is a world where there’s “nothin’ real … least of all me.” Looming over both men is the long shadow of their father. Nameless, toothless, and both ever-present and nowhere all at once, the old man motivates both Austin and Lee, just as Shepard’s own father may have fueled True West, which is dedicated to him.
For Austin and Lee, the play is a series of unsolvable problems. They can’t figure out how to be men; can’t figure out how to either save or escape the legacy of their old man; can’t figure out how to finish Lee’s screenplay, a “true to life” western that is a preposterous pile of clichés and shoehorned action sequences. Like many men, they are impotent in a world they’ve been told belongs to them, and this impotence swiftly turns to rage. Ultimately, the biggest victims of their crises of self are, of course, women: Austin’s wife, whom he is willing to toss over without a second thought, and their mother, whose kitchen they destroy over the course of the play.
True West lives and dies by its actors. Its disastrous 1980 New York premiere at the Public Theater is the stuff of dramatic legend. Its two stars, Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones, hadn’t been on stage in years, strongly disliked each other, and had trouble understanding what Robert Woodruff, the play’s director, wanted from them. Shepard, who wouldn’t travel on airplanes, refused to drive to New York to work on the show. Both he and Woodruff disavowed the production before it opened. In reviewing it, the New York Times’ Frank Rich predicted that, “some day, when the warring parties get around to writing their memoirs, we may actually discover who killed True West.”
A few years later, a production imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre would put that city’s theater scene on the national map and catapult Gary Sinise and John Malkovich to stardom. It ran for years, was filmed for television, and made the play a mainstay of acting classes everywhere. Actors love True West. The brothers are great showcases, huge Dagwood sandwiches awaiting someone with a jaw wide enough to chew them. The 2000 production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly helped transform both men from indie darlings into two of the most respected actors of their generation.
Hawke and Dano bring a real sense of affection for each other to the roles. One of the great mysteries of the play is why Austin puts up with Lee for so long. He could call the cops at any moment and get rid of his brother. Instead, he lets Lee move into their mother’s house, boss him around, and steal his car and job. The play hints at various reasons. Perhaps Austin is just afraid of Lee. Or perhaps the longing to become Lee—which surprises both Austin and the audience—was lying dormant all along. Dano’s performance answers this question more simply: They’re brothers, dummy. That’s what brothers do. Simplicity is the hallmark of Dano’s performance. In the first half of the play, Austin’s main job onstage is to observe and attempt to contain Lee, and Dano has the confidence to do seemingly little, saving Austin’s forlornness, his disorientation, and his rage for the second half.
Lee is by far the showier role in True West, and Hawke appears to be having the time of his life playing him. His Lee is borderline Falstaffian. The menace is still there, but Hawke brings out the manipulative side of him, the one who will butter up his brother, cajole him, and guilt-trip him, and insult him—and, yes, OK, threaten him from time to time—to get what he wants. But Lee’s act of proving again and again that he’s the more powerful brother despite having no money, or social status, or place to live, isn’t just about competition or vengeance in this production. It’s also about fun, about toxic masculinity as a form of addictive entertainment that, like all addictions, destroys us while we search for the next fix.
We are in the midst of so many crises right now, many of them brought on by our addiction to the pleasures of male power. One way we are trying to address these crises is through renegotiating what stories get told and who gets to tell them. This places theater in a particular bind. Theater, unlike film or television, looks forward and backward simultaneously, creating new works while reconsidering more than 2,000 years’ worth of plays. What are we to do with our history and, particularly, with its misogyny? (After True West, the Roundabout Theatre is producing Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s tuneful, comic paean to spousal abuse.) This production, while always entertaining, doesn’t quite solve this problem; director James Macdonald’s pacing is at times too languid, and the set, which frames the kitchen so that it looks like a diorama at the Natural History Museum, invites the audience to experience the play at an analytical remove that weakens its power. But the complexity of Hawke’s and Dano’s performances in True West suggests that we need not abandon our history entirely. Sam Shepard was easily the butchest playwright of the 20th century, yet he also understood on a deep level the contradictions, failures, and dangers of masculinity. In True West, he found a way to stage the Gordian knot of being a man in a way that sidesteps deconstruction, and instead uses private symbols and bank-shot logic to lead us through a living dream state that increasingly comes to feel like our present nightmare.