True West

Circle Theatre


Eucalyptus Theatre, at Cafe Voltaire

Maybe it’s time to retire Sam Shepard for a while. Or at least put his plays on a restricted borrowing list so that everyone won’t be able to get their mitts on them. That way he won’t run the risk of becoming the Neil Simon of young adults, his works so overdone that their merit will be entirely forgotten. Every month or so it seems there’s another fledgling Chicago theater company spawning another bare-bones production of Geography of a Horse Dreamer or Suicide in B-Flat or something else that popped out of Sam’s Smith-Corona in the 70s or 80s that might launch the troupe into cult status.

Shepard’s appeal is obvious, especially for slackers of all ages. That tone of raw, nihilistic, biblical atheism. That feeling of alienation from clothes and appliances and the other machines that connect us to civilization and keep us from thinking we’re all ferocious animals. Those hilarious, circumlocutory monologues that actors love, written for characters who are about to jump over the edge. The geysers of raw emotion, and the license to take a golf club and break shit. And, perhaps most important, the food–present in practically all Shepard’s plays–which can keep a starving thespian full of processed cheese, turkey, or toast every performance night.

None of this diminishes Shepard’s talent or his contribution to contemporary theater. Fool for Love and True West are two of the funniest, most entertaining, most menacing American comedies written in the second half of this century. His script for the film Paris, Texas is an incredibly chilling depiction of men’s desolation and inability to communicate. I even dig Shepard’s weirder work, when he eerily evokes voodoo ritual in Back Bog Beast Bait or waxes humorous and philosophical in the wry, meandering monologue he penned for the Bob Dylan song “Brownsville Girl.”

Too often, though, theater companies embrace the image of Shepard rather than his work. And it’s not hard to capture his dirty-blue-jeans ambience, as Circle Theatre does in its brilliantly tacky 1970s kitchen (designed by David Krajecki) and as Eucalyptus Theatre does in the flickering fairy lights that illuminate the Cafe Voltaire basement for Action. But an obsession with ultracool mood and getting the cheesy sideburns just right often means that Shepard’s characters and their language get short shrift.

To compare Circle Theatre’s True West to Steppenwolf Theatre’s legendary revival back in 1982 would hardly be fair. Steppenwolf’s production was not only a gloriously vicious, hysterically funny star-making vehicle for John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, it was also a noble, incomparable act of theatrical resuscitation. Malkovich and Sinise’s shit-kicking, Twinkie-snarfing, golf club-swinging, baying-at-the-moon performances forced even New York theater critics (like Mel Gussow of the New York Times and Edith Oliver of the New Yorker) to recant. Though they’d derided True West in its 1981 off-Broadway premiere, declaring it hackneyed and obvious, they now saw it as brilliant. What had been derivative was now slyly, deliciously Pinter-esque.

The truth of the matter lies somewhere between these extremes. To be sure, Shepard’s fable of two very different brothers who gradually switch places and become locked in eternal mortal combat is as old as dirt. But the verbal and physical interchanges between Austin, the whiny, pampered screenwriter, and Lee, his scheming, terrifying thief of a brother, are so vigorous and so inventively comic that the creaky, shopworn situation hardly matters.

Whatever the play’s merits, one could hope for something far more challenging than the thoroughly unbelievable, cartoonish True West that Circle Theatre offers. Once you get past Krajecki’s inspired kitchen, with its hilariously woeful light fixtures and hideous drapes, things decline rapidly. Shepard’s play–which is loaded with satire of such American ideals as the insular suburban family, Hollywood, and the rugged individualism of the western frontier–has most often been compared to Pinter’s wicked The Homecoming, in which the prodigal son returns home to turn his wife into the family prostitute. Prodigal criminal Lee returns home to wreak havoc on his successful, civilized brother and, in the process, destroys virtually every known American myth. But rather than conveying dark, comedic menace, Karen Skinner’s production recalls nothing more threatening than that warhorse of evil-brother-comes-home plays, Arsenic and Old Lace.

Watching the wild-eyed Krajecki and the grating Robert J. Bailey II face off in the kitchen, one may be reminded more than once of dopey Cary Grant trying to fend off evil Raymond Massey and hide the horrible secret of their murderous aunties: there is no discernible theme here, just an opportunity for two actors to ham it up. The performances are so broad and implausible that the sense of danger and urgency is virtually nonexistent. Never for a moment do you think that Krajecki and Bailey are brothers or that their relationship goes beyond what’s on the page. Occasionally they’re able to mine the script for easy laughs, but more often than not they succeed only in making the sinister seem silly. As the boys’ addled mother and as Austin’s slick agent, Deanna Norman and Bill Hammack mug their way through oh-so-familiar stereotypes.

Skinner’s direction is uninspired and occasionally clumsy. Whenever more than the two lead characters are present, the stage gets awfully cluttered with actors blocking each other and bunching together. Uncertain whether to direct the play as comedy or drama, Skinner effectively undercuts both. Every time some drama seems to be asserting itself, the scene quickly ends on a cute blackout line, which is followed by an irrelevant, mood-busting pop-music cue.

The young Eucalyptus Theatre seems to have paid more attention to picking out the right musical interludes for Shepard’s Action than to assimilating the work itself. Their staging reveals a certain desperation in attempting to penetrate a very murky play: strange, disembodied moments in Shepard’s 1975 absurdist exercise are interrupted by blasts of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” and that Dr. Demento radio-show staple “Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads.”

Perhaps more attracted to the idea of doing Shepard than doing Action, Eucalyptus has dug itself a very deep hole. This occasionally intriguing but ultimately infuriating mind screw explores the difficulties of feeling connected to one’s own body and one’s own physical actions; it takes the form of a long, rambling dinner party full of dissociated monologues and alienated conversations between two men and two women. Action would probably make a lot more sense after a jug of rum and a few drags on funny cigarettes–everything about the play has a “Hey, man” stoner quality. In fact, if you put the word “man” after every great thought uttered by a Shepard character here, you’d turn absurd existentialism into high comedy: “Just because we’re surrounded by four walls and a roof doesn’t mean anything, man.” “I saw this picture of a dancing bear, man.”

Seen sober, however, this brief one-act is barely good for a thought and a giggle. Its obscurity and impenetrability feel studied, and the random dialogue and voracious turkey eating do little but pass the time between soul-searching monologues–which admittedly are often effectively chilling. The four actors here have their moments: J.P. Haneckow is endearingly dopey, Keith Gavigan is an appealingly earnest performer, Oryana S. Quintero somehow manages to sound like both the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West in Wizard of Oz, and Laura Minnich makes amusing if somewhat distracting funny faces. The material, though, seems way beyond them. In this choppy production, the actors appear every bit as alienated from the script as Shepard’s characters are from one another. Perhaps Eucalyptus should have tried another, simpler play. Maybe The Odd Couple. Or The Tooth of Crime. It’s all the same. Isn’t it?