No federal law requires a director to stage Sam Shepard's "True West" in a kitchen, though that's what Shepard's stage directions request.
At the Gnu Theatre, where the California-set "True West" was going to alternate with Lee Blessing's Iowa-set "Independence" before the latter production was shut down by a court order, director/set designer Jeff Seymour devised a joint space for both plays--a homey upstage dining room and downstage living room/study area that could be in either Iowa or the Inland Empire.
Just the place Austin (David Ross Wolfe) would use to finish his story idea for a Hollywood producer (Tom Dahlgren, reprising his role from the original Magic Theatre production). Mom is giving him the run of the place while she's away in Alaska. Nice.
Except that Austin's older brother, Lee (Matthew Nelson), is hanging out here after just getting in from the desert. Lee is trouble; he's also the play's locomotive, the agent of imaginative abandon against Austin's business-like approach. If a production of "True West" is really working, it should gradually build up an edge, drilling our insides as Lee does Austin's.
But in a metaphoric way, Seymour's staging stays in Iowa. There are early signals that the text wasn't really examined. In the first scene, we should see Austin working at night by candlelight, but Connie Jordan's lights are far too bright. Nelson is only slightly scruffy, as if he's just been out in the front yard playing ball, rather than the balding, disheveled desert rat Lee should be.
In Shepard's theater, appearances count. In "True West," Lee and Austin, really two halves of the same person, flip appearances as the action forces them into reversing roles. But while this production faithfully follows the play on its comedic surface, it misses "True West's" surreal substrata. Watching Austin making toast in dozens of toasters he stole, or Lee burning paper and beating a typewriter to death with his golf club should hold us transfixed. Here, the toast scene is light stuff, and Lee's destruction derby is virtually off-stage.
Wolfe, though, suggests a very human Austin, carrying around a lot of wounds, and Nelson injects a creepiness into his portrayal that literally rescues the show from blandness. Watch Nelson's eyes--the gaze of maleness colliding with the urge to create--for a sign of what "True West" is really about.
At 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until July 15. $17.50-$20; (818) 508-5344.
'MOEXXV': Tale of Street-Wise Artists
Another play about what happens when the macho impulse clashes with artistic desire is Mark ("Idioglossia") Handley's new work "MOEXXV" (pronounced Mo - X15 ). Although the theme is never developed to the point where we think about it in new terms, Handley's most interesting achievement, in Gwenn Victor's Burbage Theatre production, is to place the issue in the street-wise mouths of young New York graffiti artists.
Handley's verbal lingo emits the same kind of bright, jagged sparks as the graffiti art of Mo (Leonard P. Salazar) and EXXV (Brian Wesley Thomas) and their street cadre, who create "masterpieces," whole panoramic displays on the side of New York subway trains. EXXV has had dreams of being a "style king . . . to wash the city in color." He taught Mo how to "tag," or do graffiti art. He thinks it's time for younger, more cautious Mo "to go up": break into a subway yard and paint his first masterpiece.
EXXV at 20, though, is washed up, and the creative slide has brought on its own death wish. Mo is torn between the urge to make his own mark while proving his artistic manhood to EXXV, and living to see another day. Handley manipulates this counterpoint without stooping to melodrama or romantic tragedy, but you wonder about a section with a night guard (M. Patrick Hughes, a kind of scared white Everyman) that feels inserted for variety.
You wish, too, that Victor had worked with her vital, unmannered actors to master the art of tagging. The real thing, by the artist Slick, hangs in the Burbage lobby. Take away some of the speechifying, and "MOEXXV" sounds, at least, like the real thing.
At 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., on Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., until July 8. $15; (213) 478-0897.
'Nightside': A Battle Between Old and New
The press room in the Chicago Police headquarters is both a graveyard and a birthplace in Philip Reed's drama, "Nightside." John Iacovelli has designed a set at International City Theatre that is steeped in a kind of institutional dust--even the obligatory Cubs pennant in the corner is yellowing like old newspaper. The dual suggestion of an old but respectable inner-city school and a workplace for the burnt-out is not accidental.