HERE'S the current wisdom on how to have a can't-miss hit in your theater: Rummage through the Sam Shepard play catalogue till you find one that somebody else hasn't already done this season. Then stage it as a no-holds-barred, fists-flying, dish-smashing, set-trashing tantrum, stand back and wait for the lines at the door.
With a production of "True West," Shepard's unsettlingly funny showdown of sibling rivalry and revelry, New Arts Theater has faithfully followed the formula. Sure enough, it's come up with a comic smash.
The prickly reunion of two estranged brothers is set in the badlands of the Southern California suburbs, in the harvest-gold kitchen of their absent mother. Though they haven't seen each other in years, there is no love lost between Austin, a preppy Perma-prest screenwriter, and Lee, a slovenly outlaw opportunist who divides his time between skulking about the desert and stealing televisions from suburbanites.
Attempting to pound out his screenplay in peace at the kitchen table, Austin studiously ignores Lee's taunts and slaps, but he does a slow burn when Lee bullies his way into a golf date with Austin's chain-festooned producer and lands himself a commission for a screenplay -- for a contemporary western.
Austin, whose own film project is dropped to make way for Lee's, snaps and starts to walk on the wild side, developing a craving for Lee's uncharted desert, while Lee, faced with the daunting task of writing and the prospect of a settled life, gets increasingly desperate. Their role reversal culminates in an extended "Animal House" mini-Armageddon, leaving a mighty mess on mom's Astroturf floor.
In nine scenes, director Camilla David steadily pushes up the energy till she reaches the brink of the explosively destructive free-for-all in the kitchen. As loutish Lee, Norman Aronovic is a mass of crude energy, spiritual kin to John Belushi. Everything about Aronovic's Lee is gross, and though his spitting, scratching, sweaty performance neglects the character's subtler motivations, Aronovic executes his funny business with slobby aplomb.
David Slavin makes a strong and memorable Washington stage debut as Austin. The actor underplays wonderfully, conveying rage with clenched teeth, and his Austin is so crisp and neat it's a real pleasure when his inhibitions begin dropping to reveal a gleefully fiendish side of his persona.
TRUE WEST -- At New Arts Theater through June.