Though not the most satisfying of plays. Sam Shepard's "True West" says engaging things about brotherly love, hucksters, hubris, Hollywood -- and does it with wicked humor. His playlet, "Killer's Head," says precious little.
The Source Theater Company has mounted productions of these works that give the playwright his due. And if they're not completely professional -- the company, for instance, has trouble spelling Shepard -- they're workmanlike enough.
In "True West," the better-made of the two, Source offers a competent cast, caring direction by Prudence Barry and a set with some weight and detail, also Barry's. The result, despite the play's dramatic faults, is often funny, well-paced and entertaining. In other words, it's a show.
A glimmer of West Coast ethos, "True West" treats two brothers who house-sit for their mom in the wilds of Southern California. The rough-hewn Lee, a professional burglar back from three months in the desert, heckles the younger Austin, a slick Ivy Leaguer down from Mill Valley, as he tries to write a screenplay in the kitchen. Crickets chirp, coyotes howl. Mom has gone off to Alaska.
By the time she returns -- to find her cherished plants dying, her kitchen a shambles -- things have turned topsy-turvy: Lee has sold a movie outline to a crass producer and Austin has stolen people's toasters, "There's going to be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning," he announces.
It's a zany idea, from which Shepard would have us draw several cultural lessons; but the script pulls off the switcheroo so ham-handedly that the effect is more manipulative than persuasive. Neither does the play resist the old L.A. cliche: "There's nothing real down here, Lee," Austin says.
That aside, Brian Hemmingsen, slouching about the kitchen in a badly rent shirt (Stanley Kowalski after a car crash?), gives a rich, rounded reading of the errant older brother. Talking in the dulcet tones of a stevedore, he manages to convey both strength and dependence, as when in one breath he deflates his brother's pretensions -- "We make movies. American movies. We leave the 'films' to the French" -- and in the next, whines for the car keys.
Christopher Henley seems a tad miscast as a suave snob -- he looks more like an overgrown urchin -- but he does have his moments as Austin. One is his maniacal toast-making scene; another is when he tells Lee, in microscopic detail, how Father came to lose his false teeth.
Gayle Wilson, dressed like a refugee from Lawrence Welk (wine-red socks, white shoes), compensates for the costume with a nicely understated portrayal of a Hollywood producer. And Mary Stetina as Mom, given only laugh lines in the play, gets the intended laughs.
The primary virtue of "Killer's Head" -- about a chap blindfolded and strapped to an electric chair, babbling about pickup trucks and horses between bouts of heavy breathing -- is brevity. Russell Miraglia, in the hot seat, does what little he can.
TRUE WEST & KILLER'S HEAD -- At the Source Theater through March 19.