Sam Shepard has been one of our reigning playwrights for more than a decade, but this is the season Washington's small theaters have latched on to him.
The Round House Theatre had a spectacular success last fall with "Fool for Love"; Source Theatre recently gave us "Geography of a Horse Dreamer." And now New Arts Theatre has revived "True West," Shepard's 1982 drama of brotherly antagonisms.
There's a reason for the flurry and I don't think it has to do exclusively with Shepard's thematic concerns -- the incestuousness of the family, the shrinking of the wide open spaces and the perversion of the Old West mystique. Actors and directors respond to the slam-bang potential in his scripts, which allows them to go for broke, trash the furniture and generally shred the scenery. Whatever else you've got, you've got a wild and woolly fight on your hands.
It was Chicago's Steppenwolf Company that first drove the point home with its explosive production of "True West." But New Arts Theatre is certainly not about to apply the brakes. At the end of this increasingly unbridled spectacle, Steve Siegel's set, a tidy southern California kitchen, looks as if it had been leveled by an earthquake.
Austin (David Slavin), a buttoned-down product of the preppie generation, is house-sitting for his vacationing mother and using the occasion to pound out a screenplay. Lee (Norman Aronovic), a desert rat and petty thief, has come by for a visit. Brothers, they get along as about as well as Cain and Abel. The rivalries are exacerbated when Lee comes up with a half-baked idea for a western, and a sleazy Hollywood producer (Chuck Lippman) decides it's much better than Austin's.
In the ensuing scenes, the brothers find themselves exchanging ambitions, values, identities and a fair number of bottles of booze. Lee, obsessed with success, takes over at the typewriter, hunting and pecking laboriously for the words that won't come. Meanwhile, Austin adapts his brother's outlaw mentality and robs the neighborhood of dozens of toasters. Garbage piles up rapidly in the house. The frustrations mount even faster.
Lee and Austin may well be two sides of the same conflicted psyche, irreconcilable impulses in a society that rewards neither the game-player nor the renegade. "True West" does not lack for meaning. First and foremost, however, it is a punch-drunk showdown, a two-act boxing match in which the contenders not only hit gleefully below the belt but take after one another with golf clubs.
Camilla David has staged the drama with properly brazen recklessness and the New Arts cast enters the fray with an impressive disregard for life and limb. In the trade, this is known as going over the top, and while one frequently wishes the actors would put a finer psychological point on things, the eruption of so much raw, brutal energy makes for a spectacle in itself.
Aronovic, as sweaty and unkempt as an entire cast of "Tobacco Road," plays Lee primarily as an unmitigated slob, careening about like a drunken water buffalo and sloshing beer on a T-shirt already caked with grime. He's less adept at projecting the menace and madness in the character, although the very grossness of the performance gives it an edge. Slavin's rebellion is more finely charted. He reminds you of the neat, serious college student who suddenly goes berserk in the library. Lippman plays the slick Hollywood agent to type, and Patricia Murphy Sheehy adds a surrealistic touch as the distracted mother, who shows up at the last minute.
These are the denizens of today's West -- a growing sprawl of depressing tract homes, populated by deluded wheeler-dealers who don't realize the gold rush is over. They all want something more than life has given them. But in their frantic attempts to break free, they succeed only in adding another mound of rubble to a civilization already choking on junk.
True West, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Camilla David. Set, Steve Siegel; lighting, Christopher Townsend; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan. With David Slavin, Norman Aronovic, Chuck Lippman, Patricia Murphy Sheehy. At New Arts Theatre.