- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

Sam Shepard's plays emanated an outlaw cowboy vibe in the 1970s and 1980s. His work was dangerous, startling and as American as a stock car wreck. That was long ago, and much dysfunction has come and gone since then. We've seen battling siblings before on everything from "The Jerry Springer Show" to "Dawson's Creek."

So Arena Stage with Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz directing the production seems to think it should go for the laughs when presenting Mr. Shepard's 1980 play, "True West."

Mr. Shalwitz taps into the irony that familial violence is ordinary by emphasizing the situational comedy of disparate brothers Austin (Todd Cerveris) and Lee (Ted Koch), who are holed up together in their mother's desert home for a few days.

Austin is an Ivy League-educated nerd. His "pardon me for living" mien evokes a grown-up Charlie Brown. He is at his mother's trying to write a screenplay, a period piece that will establish him as a major player.

He is hard at work in his mom's avocado-green-and-harvest-gold kitchen (a cheerfully hideous set by Loy Arcenas), when Lee oozes in. The older brother is a guy who might as well have "trouble" tattooed on his knuckles. Lee scratches his hairy belly, downs cans of beer and has a snarky way of speaking as though he's constantly trying to sell you something.

Austin patiently puts up with his bro's boozing and hollering. He thinks Lee probably will get his fill and slink off again into the desert. But then, Lee attracts the attention of Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (David Marks, clad in a doozy of a burnt orange leisure suit and an amazingly fake toupee), who throws over Austin's screenplay idea for Lee's pitch of a "real" Western. The catch is, Austin has to help him write it or the deal is off.

By the second act, the tables are turned. The largely illiterate Lee sits like a monkey at the typewriter and tries to peck out his magnum opus. Austin chugs tequila and belts out "Red Sails in the Sunset" while prone on the kitchen floor.

The two seem less like brothers and more like two sides of the same coin. Lee becomes obsessed with getting his thoughts on paper and is appalled when Austin reads his words back to him and they sound like dreck.

On the other hand, Austin seems oddly liberated by the turn of events. He knows Lee never will complete anything of value, so he just lets loose and enjoys the ride.

In the process, Austin's typewriter and the mother's house become completely trashed, and both brothers have morphed into a single drunken, belligerent, deluded entity.

This is the first production of "True West" I've ever seen that's done strictly for laughs. It has no element of danger or duel-to-the-death energy that makes Mr. Shepard's play dark as well as darkly funny.

These two losers don't seem particularly terrifying, either to the world at large or to each other. When the Mother (Nancy Robinette, in a droll and ringingly apt cameo) shows up and remarks "No fighting inside the house," she doesn't seem to take their antics too seriously and neither do we.

There is also the problem of Mr. Koch and Mr. Cerveris acting up a storm from start to finish, allowing little room for nuance. These are outsized characters, certainly, but that doesn't mean they should be stuffed solely with hot air. Mr. Cerveris does put some fine touches on Austin, such as his habit of rubbing his foot like a little boy who has stayed up way past his bedtime.

The audience roared with laughter over this broad interpretation of "True West," leading me to wonder whether the play's bleaker elements have disappeared over time much like the myth of the Old West.

**1/2

WHAT: "True West"

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. tomorrow, March 17 and April 7; and noon Tuesday, March 20 and March 27

WHERE: Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

TICKETS: $32 to $49

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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