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  • Kelli

Kel Tells: True West

Updated: Sep 12, 2020


We’ve all heard of the “Wild West” right? What comes to mind is the classic Western showdown moment – two cowboy-types standing several meters apart, staring one another down through squinted eyes and a furrowed brow in the middle of the desert with a tumble weed rolling by in the background. As a viewer, you wait with baited breath for one to pull their gun and end the other’s life on the basis of “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” Though the dramatics and cliches are stripped away from this iteration of the cultural portrayal of the “Wild West,” there is still intense energy of opposition that, as an audience member, you feel could manifest action at any point in time.

True West, the revival of the 1980 drama by Sam Shepard currently playing at the American Airlines Theatre, is a story of division, turbulence, and tension. Brothers Lee, a flighty, on-edge, contemptuously aggressive drunk and Austin, a straight-and-narrow, clean, conservative, ivy-league-educated screenwriter find themselves in each other’s company after years of estrangement when their mother goes on a trip to Alaska and entrusts Austin to look after the house and water the plants. What should have been an innocent week of working from home and general upkeep turns into complete chaos and mass destruction that all begins when Lee prods at Austin’s career of “making art.”


The constant push and pull of the dynamic between the two brothers is not only vividly felt in the energy exchange between Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke (Austin and Lee, respectively) and James Macdonald’s dynamic staging, but is also visualized in Mimi Lien’s opposing set design. Featuring a fixed structure of a kitchen and dining room with a literal dividing line between each space, the two actors frequently speak to one another from opposite sides of the set; that is, if one is in the the dining room, the other will usually be in the kitchen. This is most consistent at the beginning of the piece, when the two brothers tip-toe around one another. The set acts as a visual representation of Austin and Lee throughout the entire play, especially towards the end as the two totally spiral out of propriety. I must also take this moment to commend the stellar stage managers, James Latus (Production Stage Manager) and Stephen Milosevich (Assistant Stage Manager) who have choreographed the execution and tend to the tidying of the onstage mess (literally, a mess) that is made of that kitchen, and do so in the dark.

Austin and Lee’s ever-evolving dynamic causes you to personally assume the history that lead to their estrangement. It is clear that Lee, the drifter, has not been around to experience the changes happening in the family while Austin, the younger, more responsible brother has been saddled with the emotional and financial duties of taking care of both of his parents.

Lee seems to be rapidly following in the footsteps of their father – an alcoholic, irresponsible, parasitic man who is allegedly lost in the desert somewhere. Lee clearly has a soft spot in his heart for his father, but Austin knows the reality of his character all too well.


The 105-minute play also features Gary Wilmes as Saul Kimmer, a producer who is potentially interested in Austin’s (and then in Lee’s) screenplay. Aside from Wilmes and Marylouise Burke (who won’t appear until much later), the piece is otherwise entirely performed by Hawke and Dano. With the same two actors locked into Lien’s stagnant set scene after scene, there’s an element of paranoia that the piece will lose momentum or electricity. No disrespect to Mr. Shephard, but it is the multi-dimensional and exciting talent of the actors and their ability to feed off of one another so authentically and stretch each line as far as it’ll go that keeps the play alive. Not only have the two mastered the beats of tension, but the comedy is incredible as well. The humor brings a slight hyperbole to the otherwise stark realism of the piece, making for a solid theatrical experience. These comedic moments between Dano and Hawke are the epitome of the sibling dynamic – where the most vicious insults are masked in nagging, mocking, and physical interaction (such as wrestling, for example). It expertly exhibits the idea that even as adults, when we are around the family members we grew up with, we tend to take on characteristics of our former child-selves. As an audience member, you’re anxious that one of them might push just a little too far, causing the other brother to snap.

By the time the ever-charming and adorable Marylouise Burke enters the play in the penultimate scene, we are desperate not only for her feminine and maternal presence that forces Austin and Lee to temporarily subdue their aggression towards one another, but also for comedic relief, which she provides with ease and hilarity, unaware of the severe circumstances the two brothers have escalated to.


True West is a complex piece disguised as a straightforward look-in on one family’s cluttered dynamic, and this production couldn’t understand that fact better. It demonstrates the duality of the human condition – how we often teeter between selfishness and selflessness, the equal longing for both human connection and isolation, how tightly we can be wound and how quickly we can unravel. It requires an attentive audience to keep up with the ever-shifting circumstances and dynamic. You needn’t attempt to define a through-line in the piece or try to discern how we all got from point A to point B. Simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the modern-day Western movie brought to life and presented right before your eyes.

Quick Info:

Run-time: 2 hours (with one, 15-minute intermission) Location: American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd St.) Tickets: – Roundabout Theatre Company – TodayTix (For discounted and rush tickets) – BroadwayBox (For discounted tickets) *Note: Though box seats are slightly less expensive and provide a “partial view,” avoid them if you can. Much of the action is performed in the pockets of either side of the stage and you won’t be able to see one or both of the actors for the majority of the performance.

Do attend if you: – Enjoy unpacking the complexity of a play – Are a fan of either Mr. Hawke or Mr. Dano – they are both spectacular – Like for dynamic acting to be the selling point of a piece

Don’t attend if you: – Require visual changes in scenery and actors in order to feel momentum – Prefer a more passive audience experience – Dislike layers of comedy embedded in a drama


All photos by Linnae Medeiros.

More on Kel Tells:

In an effort to see more theatre and hone my critical writing skills, I’m introducing a new series on the blog: Kel Tells! This series will consist of reviews of (primarily) Broadway plays and musicals, featuring my opinions, thoughts and critical analyses of various elements of the productions. After seeing shows that I love be picked apart by critics from various publications over the years, I thought I might offer a different perspective: one that operates through a lens of optimism, admiration, and adoration for this art form in ALL its forms – traditional, progressive, even outrageous and never-before-experienced. Despite approaching these reviews from a perspective of wanting the production to succeed, I will not be untruthful, will never give any spoilers, and will call out anything noteworthy that I think might benefit the audience member to absorb. It is my hope that you can look to these reviews as a credible, truthful, yet positive perspective on new theatre in New York City.


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