Who Died?


In this respect, it's the antithesis of Sam Shepard's True West, a play so simple, straightforward, and taut that it's practically unkillable. (If its first New York production, which Shepard disowned, couldn't kill it, nothing can.) Matthew Warchus's Broadway revival doesn't exactly get in the script's way, but also never quite comes to grips with it. The eerie, half-desolate space of this absurd house, located in an edge-of-reality suburb where coyotes prowl the banal streets, is never evoked, and Claire van Kampen's hard, New Yorky, electric jazz, which fills the gaps between scenes, couldn't be less relevant to this drifty vision of L.A. Where other productions have striven to find the kinship between these two brothers who switch roles, this one actively exaggerates their difference. As Lee, the bandit brother who's been living in the desert, John C. Reilly, with his squirrel face and sanding-brush voice, could easily come from this boozing, fractured rural family, but Philip Seymour Hoffman not only makes Austin, the screenwriter brother, a stereotype college boy, but goes well beyond that, into the realm of cartooned dweebs and crybabies. But this can't be, because Shepard's brothers are evenly matched; we care about them equally, finding things to love and dislike about both. That's the source of the structure's tensile strength.

Sam Robards and Veanne Cox in The Altruists: Body language
photo: Carol Rosegg
Sam Robards and Veanne Cox in The Altruists: Body language

Details

The Altruists
By Nicky Silver
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
212-353-0303

An Empty Plate at the Cafť du Grand Boeuf
By Michael Hollinger
Primary Stages
354 West 45th Street
212-333-4052

True West
By Sam Shepard
Circle in the Square Theatre
Broadway and 50th Street
212-239-6200

Shepard's plays, which always tend to start out in a deadpan tone, can work up a fair amount of emotional heat, but whining rarely appears on their spectrum of feeling—least of all in an equal contest like this. (The one exception I can think of is the monologue of the humiliated high-school boy in The Unseen Hand.) Since Hoffman is currently the media's resident whinemeister, casting him as Austin is hopelessly off base, and the prospect of seeing him play Lee—the two men are alternating, a good idea in principle—is unlikely to tempt me to a second visit. Robert LuPone gives the producer an appropriately two-faced air, but Celia Weston, mystifyingly costumed as the height of upper-suburban chic and looking around the same age as her two sons, makes nothing of the mother's hilarious intervention. Still, the script is so strongly built that none of Warchus's missteps can either halt its forward momentum or weaken its pungent, unnerving power as a parable—the meaning of which, as with all great parables, you can never wholly pin down. But given the number of stagings True West has had in the last two decades, you've probably seen it captured better.

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