“True West”

photo courtesy of John Armstrong

Play:        “True West”

Group:        HotCity Theatre

Venue:        Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand

Dates:        February 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19

Tickets:    $15-$25; contact 314-289-4063 or www.hotcitytheatre.org

Story:    Austin is house-sitting for his mother at her southern California home while she vacations in Alaska.  He’s using the time as an opportunity to brush up a screenplay he’s writing at the request of his producer, Saul Kimmer, while Austin’s wife and kids remain at their northern California home. His contemplative environment is upended, however, by the unexpected arrival of his estranged older brother Lee.

A small-time thief who lives a hardscrabble existence in the desert, Lee surprises Austin when he strikes up a friendship with Saul when the latter pops by to visit Austin.  When Lee wins a subsequent golfing bet with Saul, he is given the opportunity to write his own screenplay about the “true West,” at the expense of Austin’s effort.  Incensed by that development, and Saul’s request that Austin write his brother’s story, Austin’s mild-mannered persona quickly disintegrates in a battle of wits with his intimidating brother.

Highlights:    Sam Shepard’s quixotic writing style is in fine form in this typically bizarre tale of the quintessential dysfunctional family so integral to the playwright’s canon.  It’s a good fit for HotCity Theatre’s own off-kilter vision for edgy, contemporary fables, and especially satisfying under Doug Finlayson’s spirited direction.  And where else can you hear a more whimsical recitation of theater etiquette than HotCity’s recorded Q&A with hypothetical audience members that precedes the performance?

Beyond the masterful strokes of his quartet of engaging performers, Finlayson benefits from a wonderfully bizarre sound design by Joseph Pini that manages to blend the talents of Dire Straits, Johnny Cash and even Hugo Montenegro to complement sundry discordant noises in providing the audio equivalent of the clutter on Jim Burwinkel’s set.  That handsome scenic design, representing Mom’s comfortable abode with its various potted plants and somewhat shabby table and chairs, is filled with wonderful tchotchke courtesy of props master Katie Donnelly, including the requisite array of toasters.

Other Info:    True to form in Shepard’s offbeat look at family life, “True West” presents a colorful if discordant combination of characters who can erupt into savagery at the most unpredictable moments, dissolving away the veneer of humanity that holds civilization together.  Finlayson’s cast is uniformly expert inhabiting Shepard’s lost souls.  Newcomer Kevin Crowley is a powerful presence as Lee, glowering throughout the proceedings and filling the set with a brooding venality that constantly maintains an apprehension of violence, while also deftly handling weirdly comic moments with an appealing style.

    Scott McMaster looks the part of the bookish Austin, reacting uneasily to Lee’s spasms of aggression, then shifting like a wounded animal when he realizes what Lee has arranged with his producer.  Part of the allure of “True West” is watching the two main characters gradually project characteristics of the other as they react to plot developments, and Crowley and McMaster generally are up to that task.

    Alan Knoll shines as the gregarious Saul, easily switching allegiance in response to the whims of gambling, while Nancy Lewis humorously understates Mom’s reaction to the unexpected mess she finds upon her premature return home.  Their controlled behavior further accentuates the bizarre actions of the brothers.

    Scott Breihan’s costumes nicely contrast Austin’s preppy wardrobe with Lee’s skuzzy attire, and Breihan’s lighting suitably supports the action.  While “True West” may not have the depth of Shepard’s “Buried Child” or the more unsettling dimension of “Curse of the Starving Class,” it nonetheless finely represents Shepard’s singularly odd talents, particularly in HotCity’s enjoyable rendition.

Rating:    A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.