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Theater Review

'True West': Double Reverse

March 17, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — No two actors butter 26 pieces of toast the same way. Nor do they club a typewriter to death using the same beer-induced golf swing. Nor do any two utter a Sam Shepard truism--"Time stands still when you're having fun," say--with the same vocal sneer, perched right on the edge of violence.

For proof, see the exuberant production of Shepard's "True West," now at Circle in the Square Theatre.

It features Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, on screen a lot lately, notably as the sympathetic male nurse and the sympathizing cop, respectively, in "Magnolia." Here, they portray Shepard's brother act: hapless screenwriter Austin and his desert-rat sibling, Lee. And then, every fourth performance, Hoffman and Reilly switch roles.

It's a versatility showcase, destined to impress. How could it not? Though this sort of role-switching isn't unique, it's little wonder "True West" has become the ringer and hot ticket of the 1999-2000 New York theater season.

This, it must be said, is a season that for a time--the first time--had no new straight plays running on Broadway. "True West" isn't new, either; it's 20 years old, and has never been out of circulation. Here, it feels truly and fully revived, and newly energized.

One version, however, fares a lot better than the other.

*

In both, the crafty Hoffman--he of the behind-the-beat timing and the open-mouthed gape--seems intent on making sure we notice what he's doing, every second. You watch him more than you watch Reilly. Hoffman's fearlessly inventive. This is not the same as letting us lose ourselves in an actor losing himself in a performance.

When Reilly's Lee struggles drunkenly with the physical and mental act of typing a screenplay, the hunting and pecking and the unspooling ribbon comes across as funny and plausible. When Hoffman does it, it's twice as exaggerated. He gets bigger laughs. But not better ones.

Twenty years isn't long in the life of a play, but those years have been kind to Shepard's comedy of blood ties and blood money. Directed by Matthew Warchus, who brought a clean-lined sheen to Yasmina Reza's comedy "Art," this "True West" has been staged, cannily, to keep the action in 1980 (no laptops or phones unattached to cords) without setting it off as a self-conscious period piece.

Austin is house-sitting for his mother, who lives in an unspecified suburb east of Los Angeles. Austin's wrapping up a screenwriting deal with a producer (Robert LuPone, vocally doing a dead-on impersonation of Bernie "Love Boat" Kopell). Finally: A chance to dine at the Hollywood trough.

The rival swine is Lee, who has dropped in uninvited, a refugee from the Mojave. He plans to burgle a few well-appointed houses in the neighborhood. The movie producer takes a liking to Lee, authentic desert soul that he is. Lee has an idea for a screenplay, about two guys chasing each other across the Texas panhandle. Lee and Austin embark on what proves to be their first and only collaboration. "No harm in tryin' I guess," Lee says, even as he senses there might be plenty.

These are comical lost souls, fighting off what one Shepard poem (in the "Motel Chronicles" collection) called "a fit of uselessness." "True West" asks old questions about family and rivalry in ways that make you laugh and make you nervous. Few playwrights in this world could manage to create an image as hilariously strange as a screenwriter-turned-toaster thief filling his mother's kitchen with ill-gotten toast.

At the Wednesday matinee, Reilly played Austin, opposite Hoffman's Lee. Hoffman made Lee a beer-soaked, slow-witted wisecracker, prone to shtick. (At one point he body-slammed a phone cord.) As the unraveling man of respectable appearances, Reilly used his doughy, pleasant countenance and friendly baritone of a voice to purposeful advantage. More modest and self-effacing as a performer, Reilly knows how to maintain a scene's rhythm. Hoffman doesn't mind taking that extra three seconds with a reaction, even if it's at a cost.

The reverse casting proved virtually flawless Wednesday night. Pushing his baritone down into a subtle growl, Reilly delivered a swift, dangerous Lee. Hoffman's Austin made a more nuanced transformation from Hollywood-maybe to desert wannabe. To his credit, with Hoffman in the screenwriter role, you sense the specter of the unseen father more fully. The shaggy-dog tale of the unseen father's trip to Juarez comes across more insinuatingly via Hoffman. He taps into a son's anger subtly but with force. If Hoffman can learn to trust fully in simplicity and hanging back a little, he'll be as good as his press.

*

Even with the excesses, Hoffman and Reilly battle it out in a hugely entertaining way. They're well supported, too, by LuPone's hail-fellow producer and, as the late-arriving, emotionally numb mother, Celia Weston. Claire van Kampen's original music juices the proceedings with sharp electric guitar riffs and a keening muted trumpet. It's just right.

"People here have become the people they're pretending to be," Shepard wrote in a poem about L.A., composed around the time he wrote "True West." Lee pretends to be Austin; Austin wants to be Lee. "I always wondered what'd be like to be you," Lee tells his brother in a rare moment of calm.

Through early June, unless Reilly and Hoffman extend past the Tony Awards--which may well bring both actors a shared Tony for leading male performance--audiences can find out what that would be like in more ways than one.

* "True West," Circle in the Square Theater, 50th Street, west of Broadway, New York City. $65-$67.50. (212) 239-6200.

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