Traveling up and down the freeway to see Sam Shepard's "True West" at the Grove Theatre Company puts one in mind that this, even more than "Angel City," is his most thoroughly Los Angeles play.
It isn't only the direct references to the desert on the other side of the mountains (from where Lee, ferociously played by Daniel Bryan Cartmell, has just wandered into town), or to the San Gabriels themselves (Gil Morales' wonderful painted backdrop is right off one of those old orange-crate posters) or the freeways that Lee's screenwriter brother Austin (Bud Leslie) drives.
All that driving, says Austin, makes him a true film scribe. It's the constant self-justification amid cultural dreck, combined with a self divided against itself (blood here is far thicker than water), that makes "True West" authentically of L.A.--the last stop for the wanderer and the writer eyeing the pot of gold.
This is not one of the exemplary Shepard plays, and Frank Condon's production does nothing to challenge that view. But Condon focuses on the essential parts that make this perhaps the best introduction for those uninitiated into this writer's high-octane theater of U-turns and rear-mirror views.
Sticking to the first rule of screenwriting (what does the main character need?), Shepard makes Austin need to write his script--so much that he'll kill before he does Lee's script idea, even though it's Lee's idea that producer Saul Kimmer (Russ Terry, the only weak performance) is interested in.
What does any self-respecting writer do when his hick brother blows in off a Mojave sirocco and grabs the limelight? In that answer lies "True West's" comedy, a satire of survival on the Western frontier of microwave ovens and toasters.
We become so used to the junk strewn everywhere in this play that it takes Mom's return from Alaska (Marnie Crossen, right out of a Grant Wood painting) to put it all in perspective: Don't fight in the kitchen, boys. Go outside, where there's room.
Lee knows the standard that this part of the world demands: Stay "fluid," and you'll do fine.
Leslie's whole manner in the first act is frozen stiff, though, and we know Austin's in trouble. It may also be why we don't warm up to Leslie the way we do to Cartmell--but the game plan rightly calls for Austin's draft of yuppie cool to hit us in the face, so the second act's climate change can catch us with our defenses down.
Shepard's stage directions call for coyote yelps: "yapping, doglike . . . (not) the long, mournful howl of the Hollywood stereotype." Here, it's not just sound effects (good work by Wendy Breuder). Cartmell and Leslie take the spirit of the wily coyote to heart. Morales, lighting designer David C. Palmer and costumer Karen J. Weller have followed those characteristically specific directions to the letter, down to wall measurements and the green synthetic grass.
As he showed with "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," Condon is just the director to keep volatile material under control and to transform the peculiarities of male savagery (of which Shepard is our finest poet) into comic buoyancy.
As Cartmell and Leslie showed with "The Dresser" last year, they bring suppleness and discipline to roles that are powerfully of the theater--characters who freak out if their very specific roles are redefined or usurped without their permission. When that happens, it's the dark night of the soul of the screenwriter--the sine qua non of Los Angeles residents.
Performances at the Grove's GEM Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday and Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 8, 3 p.m. Ends Feb. 14; (714) 636-7213.