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Unclear True West loses laughs in miscasting
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Unclear True West loses laughs in miscasting

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

True West
Balagan Theatre
Through May 1


Sam Shepard's True West is not a new play, and given its 1980s origin, one has to wonder if it survives the test of time. Despite the fact that it uses an actual manual typewriter (not electric, even?), the basics of the play seem timeless. Two brothers, whose destinies are completely opposite, each feel like their paths might have been a mistake and that the other brother had the right idea.

Family drama never gets old. However, per Shepard's point of view, this is supposed to be a comedy. Either that is part of what doesn't translate anymore, or this production at Balagan Theatre just doesn't find it.

While each of the individual actors does a good job, part of the problem might be a miscasting of the two brothers. Chris Bell, as the younger, screenplay-writing, college-educated brother, is obsequious and meek toward his older, criminal brother, played by Mike Dooly, in the first act. Yet, he turns around almost implausibly in the second act to lose his fear and furiously almost murders his brother. Mike Dooly is great as the menacing and ill-educated brother, but perhaps plays him too seriously. Yes, comedic acting involves absolute seriousness in the acting, but there is a rhythm and a level of serious that allows for the audience to laugh at or with the actors. Too little and it's stupid, too much and it's just not funny.

Younger brother Austin comes to his mother's house to gain the quiet needed to finish a screenplay and solidify a deal with a Hollywood producer (Shawn Belyea). Lee, his ne'er-do-well burglar brother, shows up for no significant reason and they fall into their regular interactions, with Lee needling Austin about his success as a college-educated writer, whom Lee says "can't steal a toaster." After non-stop drinking, Lee horns his way into a meeting with the Hollywood producer with surprising ease, and takes the opportunity to expand on a script idea that the producer turns out to like. Based on that, he browbeats Austin into writing the treatment for him, and they begin to churn out a script.

The sibling rivalry is clear, as the non-writing brother wins a script contract while the writing brother feels snubbed. The continual drinking has to be a major theme, but it's not clear whether it's supposed to be a positive (supporting good risk-taking, the kind that gives the courage to change your life and find satisfaction) or a negative (supporting bad risk-taking, including Austin's trigger to go out and raid the neighborhood of toasters just to prove to Lee he can do it and not get caught).

They completely trash the house just before the brief reappearance of Mom (Betty Campbell), who decides this isn't her house anymore and she leaves. There is a non-conclusive conclusion where Austin attacks Lee and tries to strangle him with a phone cord, saying he needs a moment to get away - and when he has his moment as Lee recovers from near strangulation, he inexplicably turns and attacks Lee again. I guess it's "until death do us part" sometimes with siblings.

For more information, go to www.balagantheatre.org or www.brownpapertickets.com or call 800-838-3006.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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