Typing by candlelight (“Like the old guys ... the forefathers”), a nervous, diffident screenwriter fends off the attentions of his feral older brother, a rawboned galoot just in from the desert, spilling potato chips over the writer and ruffling his hair, darkly exclaiming, “Don’t worry about me; I’m not the one to worry about!”—as crickets chirp and there’s talk of coyotes killing cocker spaniels in suburbia by the San Gabriels, in Actors Ensemble’s production of Sam Shepard’s True West at Live Oak Theatre.
Paul Shepard, seemingly no relation to the playwright, has directed this straight-ahead show of one of his namesake’s most famous plays, also designing the excellent, geometrical kitchen set, backed by Shu Ping Guan’s backdrop painting of the mountain ridges with a lone Joshua Tree in the foreground, silhoutted out the windows in the night scenes, no less stark yet suggestive in daylight (Bob Gudmundsson’s design).
This is the white-toned room—and deadpan world outside—where a barewire chamber play is enacted, a kind of doppelganger double-shuffle between two sons of an absent drunken father as they house-sit (and trash) their mother’s home while she’s sightseeing glaciers in Alaska.
Kevin Fletcher Tweedy’s original, mostly guitar score framing the tense scenes is a stand-out, its hesitant vibrato splaying off from a ballad tune never quite introduced.
As the brothers unravel, they’re visited by a golf-betting, gut-driven producer, first enthused over younger brother Austin’s story, then caught up in desert rat Lee’s con games and kitsch Western tales—and by their semi-oblivious mother, back early from Alaska to catch Picasso at the museum, a chance not to be missed.
Benjamin Grubb, in his Bay Area debut as Lee, and Jay Kiecolt-Wahl as Austin handle the seesaw dialogue of the two brothers circling each other, intermittently jousting, pretty well, with Kiecolt-Wahl managing a despondent drunk act to his own off-key rendition of “Red Sails In The Sunset.” There’s a bit too much of Lee’s yelling and Austin’s whining; the often-monochromatic dialogue needs a little indirection to preserve the dynamics. John Hurst, as Kimmer, the Hollywood moneyman, and Maureen Coyne, as Mom, add good touches that soften the edge—or make it wryer—of this sharp encounter that sounds somehow flattened and banal.
The show seems another step forward for Actors Ensemble, following a good Hedda Gabler. True West runs on an even keel, its best moment the eerie, wordless ending, with a graceful pirouette right into the curtain call.
Director Shepard, initially repelled by the play, found it a way to explore his “shadow side.” And, indeed, the playwright’s fabulous success seems to be predicated on the appetites of director, actors—and audience—to express themselves. The ensemble handles it well enough, with a good shaggy dog story (rather self-consciously Beckett on the playwright’s part) and some choice business with a tangled typewriter ribbon and a kitchen overflowing with stolen toasters.
Too much, or not enough—the strange codependency of the brothers—mythic? sociopathic? just plain dysfunctional? The script coyly hints at all, but neatly sidesteps any dramaturgy, substituting vague reference.
The director sees a link with Pinter, who was sent up once, lovingly, by his friend Beckett as always writing “menace in a room.” In this and his brilliantly oblique dialogue, Pinter follows Strindberg’s plays peopled by phantoms of their own obsessions and desires, a drama found in the interstices, a Shakespearean modernism.
But Shepard lacks real insinuation, as well as any chiaroscuro to his characters. In fact, they aren’t characters at all, caught somewhere between caricature and mere types. My father had an expression for a certain kind of bland hypocrite: “Printed on one side.”
Creatures of the ’70s, as Shepard’s plays and personae age, they begin to show a threadbare and one-way quality, not primitive or sophisticated, just shallow, dashed in without draughtsmanship, becoming the same cliche supposedly played off of.
As Austin says of the figures in Lee’s preposterous yarn, which he wants his writer brother to flesh out with his “tricks,” they aren’t characters at all, just the fantasy of a ruined childhood.
Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 17 at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave.
$12. 649-5999. www.aeofberkeley.org.