Early in the Gloucester Stage Company production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” a fresh, Trump-era take presented itself: Austin is a lib, and Lee is owning him.
The darkly funny play premiered in 1980 but it never gets old, maybe because it says something essential about the American character in its yin-yang depiction of battling brothers Austin and Lee, wimpy screenwriter and hot-headed desert rat. Lee snarls and lunges, Austin jumps back in fear, Lee pretends to be offended. Lee drinks Red, White and Blue beer, and even mentions “real American-type people.” If I was the costume designer, I’d be tempted to replace Lee’s ballcap with a MAGA hat, anachronism be damned.
But that sort of reductive interpretation only skims the surface of a great play, which this is. These boys relate in a way that’s as timeless as anything in Shakespeare. Those “real” Americans? “They kill each other in the heat mostly.”
Austin has made camp at their mother’s house in the dusty coyote suburbs east of LA, where he is trying to finish a screenplay while she’s on an Alaskan cruise. Lee shows up too, and starts poking at his brother’s pretensions and insecurities, but he has plenty of his own. The only time he’s comfortable around his fellow citizens is when he’s creeping into their houses at night to steal their televisions. When he inserts himself into Austin’s meeting with a producer and hijacks their Hollywood deal with his own western tale, the brothers are forced to collaborate at the typewriter. But that role-switch works both ways, and Austin begins swigging whiskey . . .
Raging, self-pitying, manipulative Lee is the showier role here, of course, and Boston favorite Nael Nacer makes the most of it, calling to mind Travis Bickle with his shaved head and a voice that sounds like he’s got a mouthful of chaw, though it’s mostly just beer. He’s funny, too, until he isn’t, when he gets right up in Austin’s face, vibrating with real threat.
As Austin, Alexander Platt is a bit too completely the milquetoast in the first act, with his aviator-framed spectacles and tucked-in shirt, his emotions tucked in behind his blank face. Even given Lee’s bullying, he seems too passive and closed-up to be a Hollywood screenwriter, although this could be down to director Joe Short as much as Platt. But as Austin begins to fight back, Platt finds the right gear.
Caught between them when he visits, Mark Cohen remains cheerfully neutral and mercenary as Saul, the producer. (Full disclosure: Cohen and I both work at Boston University.) And Marya Lowry hits the right tone as Mom, a strange figure in every production. On her return from the cruise, her emotional distance from her boys — and the mess they’ve made of her home — hints at just how screwed up their childhood must have been.
The final moments of the play are appropriately excruciating, as push comes to shove and then some. But best be careful trying to complete that comparison to today’s politics. One of the lessons of “True West” is that, under duress, yin and yang can look an awful lot alike.
Play by Sam Shepard. Directed by Joe Short. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through Sept. 8. Tickets $35-$45, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org